Reviews, News and Commentary

Adolescence and Change can be Tragic

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele)


A film by Lukas Dhont

In NZ cinemas from May 11

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Growing up on a farm in the country, I don’t recall having any one special friend but of having many – albeit some closer than others – and all in a lifestyle largely shaped by my family and my then school friends.

When I was about the same age as Leo and Remi the central figures in Lukas Dhont’s Close, I too moved to a much larger secondary school but have only a semblance of memory about the significant and protracted leap this entailed.  From a childhood built around play and make-believe I was slowly and irrevocably thrust into an adolescent world where choices were broader, responsibilities and aspirations took on a different shape and my own personality became more sharply defined in a context of my peers and by the world around me.  Somewhere and somehow I learned that each of those peers was different.

This step into adolescence is the lynchpin for Lukas Dhont’s remarkable film which illustrates two protagonists approaching this new adolescent world … but differently.  Growing up together the two boys have become inseparable.  They frolic together in Leo’s parents’ flower farm, race each other on their bikes and share each others’ parents, meals and sleepovers.  Their lives and their view of the world has been built around a make-believe they have created together.  It is one of joy.  Of fun.

In their newly-arriving adolescent world, however, intrinsic differences starts to become apparent.  Leo is starting to emerge as more of an extrovert, discovering additional new friends, taking up new sports and developing his own self-confidence.  Whereas the more introverted Remi is growing into a quieter and more sensitive soul who finds joy in more personal and immediate things.  He immerses himself in his art, plays the oboe like an angel and finds the much larger peer group something of a challenge.

But as the film progresses it becomes clear that more is going on here.  The two are slowly growing into two different people only subconsciously aware that they are growing away from each other.  And so too are their emerging differences becoming apparent to others in terms they can neither grasp nor understand. One day a young female classmate puts Leo on the spot by asking whether or not they are ‘together.’  Leo immediately sets the record straight explaining that they are simply best friends. When she persists, he becomes defensive while Remi quietly observes.  But that is not enough and the drama all comes to a head when Remi heatedly confronts Leo about what he perceives as an increased alienation. The discussion soon turns into a full-on schoolyard tussle and the two must eventually be separated by a teacher and an older brother. 

There is pain and confusion for both, all built on an inability to understand, to articulate, to appreciate. For this is what happens during the years of adolescence and puberty when people are at their most vulnerable and when the most innocent comment can be misunderstood, can hurt and shape one’s future.

No spoilers here about where all this leads but the ending is both unexpected and tragic.  At the same time it also points to challenge and promise.

This film is lyrical and beatific with some beautifully-crafted cinematography with very few fades between scenes, being both smooth and polished.  The dialogue (a mixture of French, Dutch and Flemish) is sparse and rudimentary as befits this refreshingly simplistic style of storytelling.

If I have a criticism it is perhaps that the imagery becomes a little over-powering at times: mechanical tractors destroy the remnants of a fragile flower crop; delicate fingers quickly learning to plant anew; Leo is isolated from his friend Emil behind the grill of an ice-hockey mask; the cutting off of a plaster cast from a broken arm signifies a new beginning; the use of repeated frantic cycle-riding indicates the speed with which things happen and, of course, that almost-clichaic a bare and empty room.

This is an astute and delicately crafted film about a crucial period in the life of all adolescents.

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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