Review: Cannes breakout ‘Close’ tells of innocence and grief

“ Close ” is a crushing story of grief told with grace by Belgian director Lukas Dhont. At its heart is a friendship, loving and deep, between two 13-year-old boys, Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele), in the countryside.

It is summertime when we meet them, playing and dreaming and out of breath running through fields of colorful flowers and biking on idyllic dirt roads. They are affectionate and sweet. At their frequent sleepovers, Leo delicately blows on Remi’s neck before they close their eyes. He watches Remi with pure adoration as he practices the oboe. One imagines they are not too far away from being more physical with one another, but for now, it’s just pure intimacy.

It’s a beautiful and confusing and sometimes embarrassing moment of life and friendship that girls know all too well, but rarely is this sort of pre-sexual intimacy depicted with boys on screen. By 13, at least in past generations, many boys have already been societally shamed out of such public displays of tenderness with their own gender.

Leo and Remi’s peaceful, private summer comes to an end when school starts and their classmates immediately single out the pair for their closeness. They aren’t ashamed at first but soon become aware of the gaze of others who want answers. Some girls ask if they’re together. Leo says no, they’re just like brothers. And the boys notice too, and soon Leo is angry and decides to distance himself from Remi. He starts playing sports and making new friends. And one morning he doesn’t wait for him to ride bikes to school together. These sort of slights and subtle changes are the stuff of tragedy for any young person.

But then something very big happens. Stop reading if you’d rather not know.

It’s not hard to guess what that is with a score that is melancholic and wistful long before (it’s also in the ratings guidelines). There may be some who consider it a spoiler, but this is not something I would want anyone to be surprised by, especially not those who’ve experienced this kind of loss themselves.

For Leo, it both comes out of nowhere and also not. He and his classmates go on a school trip one day and arrive back at school to find all their parents waiting for them. Leo doesn’t even want to get off the bus. His mother (Léa Drucker) has to come on to retrieve him and tell him what happened. Both Drucker and Émilie Dequenne, as Remi’s mother, deliver beautiful, heartbreaking supporting performances. But the film belongs to the magnetic Dambrine, who is both perfectly his age and disarmingly wise.

Many directors and writers might choose to end their stories here, but Dhont places this moment right in the middle of his film, daring to show the uncomfortable aftermath and grief of a 13-year-old worried it’s his fault and missing his friend.

If there is a criticism to be made of “Close” it’s that we don’t get to know Remi all that well before he’s gone. Leo is the more talkative one. Remi is quiet and contemplative. He’ll show up to Leo’s hockey practice and follow Leo along the plastic divider. It makes for a beautiful shot and drills in the awkwardness that Leo feels in the moment, but it’s also not something I believed. The same effect could have been achieved by having him simply sit in the stands instead of making him do something so strange.

It’s interesting that “Close” has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association. This is certainly not anything the filmmaker has any say over, but this is also the type of film that younger people should see. Bullying and suicide and accidental cruelty happen in middle schools, and “Close” is at least partially about the danger of not being able to talk about what you’re feeling when you’re feeling it.

“Close,” an A24 release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for, “thematic material, suicide, brief strong language.” Running time: 105 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

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MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.

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