Skip to main content

If you had a particularly 'Close' childhood friendship, this film will resonate

Film critic, Justin Chang, reviews one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best International Feature called "Close." It's a Belgian drama about the friendship between two 13-year-old boys. The movie is the second feature from 31-year-old director Lukas Dhont.



Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on February 1, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 1, 2023: Interview with Siddharth Kara; Review of Close



This is FRESH AIR. One of this year's Oscar nominees for Best International Feature is called "Close." It's a Belgian drama about the friendship between two 13-year-old boys. The movie is the second feature from 31-year-old director Lukas Dhont. It's now playing in theaters. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: At last year's Cannes Film Festival, the Belgian movie "Close" so reduced audiences to tears that many of us were convinced we had the next winner of the Palme d'Or, the festival's top prize, on our hands. And it did come close, so to speak. It wound up winning the Grand Prix, or second place. That's a testament to the movie's real emotional power. And while it left me misty-eyed rather than full-on sobbing, it will resonate with anyone who remembers the special intensity of their childhood friendships, the ones that felt like they would last forever. The friendship in "Close" is between two inseparable 13-year-old boys, Leo and Remi, who've grown up in neighboring families in the Belgian countryside. Leo's parents run a flower farm, and the two boys spend a lot of their time playing outdoors, running and riding their bikes joyously past bright, blooming fields, which the director, Lukas Dhont, films as if they were the Garden of Eden.

The boys have an intensely physical bond whether taking naps together in the grass or sharing a bed during their many sleepovers. Again and again, Dhont presents us with casual images of boyhood tenderness. He leaves open the question of whether Leo and Remi are going through an especially close phase of their friendship or if they might be experiencing some early stirrings of sexual desire. Either way, Dhont seems to be saying, they deserve the time and space to figure it out.

Happily, they don't get any judgment from their families, who have always been supportive of their friendship, especially Remi's mother, played by the luminous Emilie Dequenne. But when they return to school after a long, glorious summer together, Leo and Remi are teased and even bullied about their friendship. After seeing Leo rest his head on Remi's shoulder, a girl asks them if they're together like a couple. A boy attacks Leo with a homophobic slur.

While Remi doesn't seem too affected by any of this, Leo suddenly turns self-conscious and embarrassed. And gradually, he begins to pull away from Remi - avoiding his hugs, ignoring him, and hanging out with other kids. Leo also joins an ice hockey team partly to make new friends, but also partly, you suspect, to conform to an acceptable masculine ideal.

Leo is played by Eden Dambrine and Remi by Gustav de Waele. They give two of the best least-affected child performances I've seen in some time, especially from Dambrine as Leo, who's the movie's main character. He registers every beat of Leo's emotional progression - the initial shame followed by guilt and regret - almost entirely through facial expressions and body language rather than dialogue. "Close" gets how hard it can be for children, especially boys, to understand their emotions, let alone talk about them. As Leo and Remi are pulled apart, they don't have the words to express their loss and confusion.

Dhont has a real feel for the dynamics of loving families and a deep understanding of how cruel children can be - themes that were also evident in "Girl," his controversial debut feature about a transgender teenager. He's clearly interested in and sympathetic to the complicated inner lives of his young characters.

But something about "Close" kept me at a distance. That's mainly due to a fateful narrative development about halfway through the movie that I won't give away. It's a plausible enough twist that Dhont tries to handle as delicately as possible, but it also feels like an easy way out. The admirable restraint of Dhont's filmmaking begins to feel fussy and coy as if he were torn between trying to tell an emotionally honest story and going straight for the jugular. After a while, even the gorgeous pastoral scenery - the umpteenth reminder of the boys' lost innocence - begins to ring hollow. There's no denying that "Close" is a beautiful movie. But its beauty can feel like a evasion, an escape from the uglier, messier aspects of love and loss.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the Belgian film "Close." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about one of the world's leading terrorist organizations, the Haqqani network. Our guest will be journalist Jere van Dyke, who spent years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he got to know leaders of the Haqqani network, which was responsible for many suicide bombings and kidnappings. Van Dyke was taken hostage himself in 2008. His new book is called "Without Borders." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I am Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue