The opening scenes of Lukas Dhont’s achingly sad drama Close depict the freedom and innocence of a friendship between two 13-year old boys, Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele). The Belgian director perfectly captures what it’s like to be best friends at that age. The boys wile away a hot summer in the Belgian countryside, running until they can’t any more, laying down in the long grass, and having sleepovers every night. There’s an intensity to their friendship but also a purity, a joy that’s entirely unencumbered by any outside concerns. Everything is perfect, at least until summer ends and the boys start high school.
All it takes to shatter that joy, ultimately, is the suggestion that the boys are more than just best friends. The question, asked innocently by some girls in their class, puts Leo on edge. As he begins to get teased by some of the other boys, the homophobic bullying is enough for Leo to begin distancing himself from Remi. The sudden and unexplained dissolution of a friendship as close as Leo and Remi has can be as painful as a breakup or losing a loved one, and Remi struggles to cope.
The screenplay – co-written by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens – handles this subject matter with sensitivity, showing the way in which toxic masculinity is so pervasive in society. Even in boys as young as Leo and Remi, in a generation which is generally more attuned to questions of gender or sexuality, the mere mention of them possibly being gay is enough to drive a wedge between them. This is evident in the different ways in which Leo and Remi deal with their friendship being under scrutiny. Remi is the quieter of the two and there’s a sense that he doesn’t care what others are saying, he’s content and secure in his friendship. Leo is more wound up by it and as well as ditching his friend, he strikes up new friendships and joins an ice hockey team, as if to prove his masculinity.
Close is ultimately the story of a friendship put in a difficult situation that neither boy is truly mature enough to deal with, or even articulate how they feel. It is an understated and thoughtful film that largely avoids cliché, finding genuine emotion in how honest and insightful it is about male friendships and how men and boys deal with their feelings.