Producers: Michiel Dhont and Dirk Impens   Director: Lukas Dhont   Screenplay: Lukas Dhont and Angelo Tijssens   Cast: Eden Dambrine, Gustave De Waele, Emilie Dequenne, Kevin Janssens, Igor Van Dessel, Marc Weiss, Léa Drucker, Marc Weiss and Leon Bataille   Distributor: A24

Grade: A-

The loss of childhood innocence has rarely been portrayed so powerfully on screen as in this heartbreaking second feature from Belgian writer-director Lukas Dhont.  In the vein of the neorealist pictures of the Dardenne brothers without merely copying their template, “Close” has a melodramatic core, but it works to shattering effect.

The initial section of the film depicts the idyllic friendship of thirteen-year old Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), best friends in the Belgian countryside where Léo works alongside his older brother Charlie (Igor van Dessel) in the fields of their parents’ flower farm.  The two boys are nearly inseparable, playing war games in the ruins of an old building, bicycling along the roads, sleeping over, and engaging in physical horseplay.  Léo is supportive of his friend’s talent playing the oboe, on which he’ll solo in a local concert while his buddy looks on approvingly from the audience.  It’s a wonderfully joyous relationship among young adolescents in an almost impossibly bucolic setting.

But it changes when they go off to school, bicycling to the campus together, and their closeness gets noticed.  A girl asks whether they’re a couple, and Léo is taken aback, nervously responding that they’re like brothers.  But the question, and the stares that follow, begin to gnaw at him.  He responds by distancing himself from Rémi, taking up with new friends in the playground, choosing a classroom desk that’s not next to his friend, even bicycling to school alone.  He joins a hockey team, and when Rémi comes to watch, shoos him away.  Their roughhousing takes on an angry edge as Léo avoids the easygoing physical intimacy they’d previously enjoyed.  The sleepovers become less frequent.

And then, when the boys’ class goes on a field trip to the beach, a tragedy occurs.  It wouldn’t be fair to explain precisely what happens, but both children and adults are forced to deal with feelings of grief and guilt, some more clumsily than others.  The simple, unfettered sense of boyhood that suffused the first part of the film is gone, replaced by a dark vision of loss and regret.

Dhont is unafraid to portray the change in stark terms that some will find heavy-handed—among other things, he uses the changing of seasons, from the sun of summer to the dankness of winter, to depict the shift visually as well as emotionally.  (The textured images show the care behind Eve Martin’s production design and Frank van den Eeden’s cinematography.)  But in this case the melodramatic force is scalding rather than false.

And Dhont shows himself, in only his second feature, an exemplary director of actors.  He elicits from his two young stars beautifully natural, rounded performances far older actors would envy.  Dark-haired De Waele captures Rémi’s seriousness and hurt over his friend’s rejection to wrenching effect, but it’s Dambrine, whose Léo must express a wider range of emotional upheaval, who dominates the film as much as he does the vicissitudes of the boys’ relationship.

Nonetheless the contribution of the adults to the ensemble is equally strong.  Drucker is superb as Léo’s mother, and so is van Dessel as his sometimes teasing but generally supportive brother.  But Dequenne is simply astonishing as Rémi’s mother, and in a single scene Kevin Janssens speaks volumes as his father. 

One has to admire the sensitivity with which Dhont and his writing colleague Angelo Tijssens treat the boys’ relationship.  Though the director is himself gay, he doesn’t paint it in explicit terms, leaving the viewer to judge whether the attraction between them is sexual on either side while suggesting that both Léo and Rémi are struggling to grasp what’s happening and why.  In lesser hands “Close” could easily have become explicit and shrill; that it doesn’t is a testament to Dhont’s skillful melding of delicacy and dramatic intensity.  The same can be said of the score by Valentin Hadjadj, and of the editing by Alain Dessauvage, whose work complements the shifts of tone Dhont portrays without crude exaggeration.                

Few films have captured the confusion and pain of adolescence among boys as well as this one; it’s a rare and compelling achievement for so young a director.