Director: Lukas Dhont Starring: Eden Dambrine, Gustav de Waele, Émilie Dequenne Running Time: 104 minutes
Though Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s debut feature Girl brought plenty of praise, it also prompted questions about his approach. Was his depiction of a young transgender girl going through her transition handed sensitively? Moreover, was it handled sensibly? Those same questions are still up in the air for Dhont – the directions that his latest film Close takes its story have continued to bring acclaim, but his reaching for those plaudits still sees him fumbling the bag.
Close follows two thirteen-year-old boys, Léo and Rémi, best friends who have been enjoying an idyllic summer together in the Belgian countryside. Played with appropriate earnestness by Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele respectively, have developed an intimacy that’s atypical for their age, spending so much of their time together that they even sleep in the same bed. Both sets of parents are accepting, encouraging, at ease, but when the boys start secondary school together, their relationship inevitably sparks remarks, teasing and speculation from their peers.
In this stretch of the film, the story avoids easy cliches – when girls ask if Léo and Rémi are a couple, there’s an air of genuine curiosity, when boys throw out homophobic slurs, other boys roll their eyes and ask what their problem is. The toll the attention takes on Léo and Rémi is, initially, grounded, recognisable, well-performed. Léo deflects and distances himself, Rémi doesn’t rise to it but goes very quiet. The matter of factness of Dambrine and De Waele’s chemistry together, the unquestioning comfort that kids have that quickly erodes puberty and teen peer pressure, is replaced by an awkwardness that’s very real for kids to feel but not easy for kid actors to convey – both leads do well in showing the drift that happens at that age.
Dhont explores interesting, deep-dive areas of young men’s mindsets – handling rejection you might not even understand, changing to avoid scrutiny at a time you’re changing anyway, the early enforcement of a toxic foodchain, the way some teenage boys will put others down in order to preserve their own standing. Close takes a turn at a pivotal point though. Tragedy occurs in the story and those interesting ideas come to a hard halt for much more standard explorations of guilt and grief. There’s a turn to melodrama that doesn’t fit with Dhont’s Dardenne-esque shaky cam groundedness – visually and on script he doesn’t know how to handle it, and the film spins its wheels in a series of repetitive beats, unearned emotions and uninteresting visuals. The queer themes of the story go beyond open-endedness into avoidance, dropped cold for more teary breakouts, well presented but clinical, expected, and, through repitition, increasingly empty. Thought the performances continue to impress, they don’t add up to anything satisfying. Though Close has an emotional impact, it winds up somewhere meandering, insincere and on the very borderline, exploitative. There isn’t always honesty in the overwrought, and for all Dhont’s talents he has yet to prove that he can take more meaningful measures as a storyteller.(3 / 5)