BElgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont received acclaim in 2018 and then a response of criticism for his feature debut Girl, the story of a young transgender woman auditioning for a ballet school, which some felt was not authentic, and an unwarranted body fetishization. It could well be that he gets more criticism for this new film because the self-conscious love and friendship between two 13-year-old boys is destroyed and problematized.
I admit there are times when Dhont goes straight to the deafening minor chords of fear. But there are two excellent renditions from newcomers Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine as Rémi and Léo, as well as valuable performances from the actors who play their mothers: Sophie (Émilie Dequenne – iconic for starring in 1999 Dardennes’ Palme winner Rosetta , when she was barely older than the boys are now) and Nathalie (Léa Drucker). Rémi and Léo are inseparable, hanging out and playing together all the time: physical, tactile, cheerful and innocent, but certainly much more intense than most 13-year-old friends. Léo has a special bond with Rémi’s mother and feels physically at ease with her. He especially admires Rémi’s musical talent – he plays the oboe. Classmates suddenly become aware of the intensity of their friendship. Girls – who might be honest, or maybe evil, or just somewhere in between – ask Léo if he and Rémi are a couple. With malicious, ersatz sophistication, they ask if Léo even “realises” it.
Soon, the boys start making nasty comments to Léo, who is angry, scared and humiliated. He withdraws from Rémi, empties it in the playground, goes to macho ice hockey. Rémi is deeply stunned and injured; Léo can hardly bear Rémi’s stupid and sometimes non-dumb reproach, and to be confronted with his own fickle dishonesty.
Close’s story is disturbing because, as sensible as teenagers may be now about the language of relationships and LGBT issues, compared to the relative naivety of perhaps 10 years ago, the breakup of an intense friendship is shocking. There’s still nothing of the adult life experience to explain it away, and the end of a friendship is devastating the way a romantic relationship isn’t. For Rémi, Léo’s sudden decision to break up has the same effect as his mother’s decision to give him up for adoption, or if the sun doesn’t rise in the morning. It’s a violent, unspeakably painful breakup that Rémi doesn’t have the language to explain to herself. He may be mature in a way that Léo is not. Maybe he’s outraged at what amounts to an unfaithful capitulation to homophobia, or maybe it’s not a matter of maturity: he’s just upset, or more than upset. There is no doubt about the power of this steeped in sad tale.