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Two friends are torn apart by homophobic rumours when they enter high school.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lukas Dhont

Starring: Eden Dambrine, Gustav de Waele, Emilie Dequenne, Léa Drucker, Kevin Janssens

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Homophobia is unique among prejudices in that it can be weaponised against anyone, regardless of their sexuality. You can't hurt a white person by calling them the n-word, and someone with an athletic physique is going to laugh off any attempts to call them "fat", but heterosexuals can be taunted by homophobic slurs, and most have at some point. I'd like to think things have changed as successive generations have gotten more open-minded (Close suggests otherwise however), but when I was a kid any young boy who indulged in an activity that wasn't associated with an 18th century definition of masculinity immediately had the f-word hurled at them. Listening to Whitney Houston? "F****t!" Reading a book? "F****t!" And most ironically of all, hanging out with girls? "F****t!"

In director Lukas Dhont's Close (co-written with Angelo Tijssens), two young friends are torn apart by homophobic taunts, and it's unclear whether either one of them is actually gay. Maybe they both are. Maybe neither is. Maybe one is and one isn't. It's irrelevant, as they're damaged by prejudice regardless.

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13-year-olds Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) enjoy, as the title suggests, a close friendship. Inseparable during their summer holidays, they spend every waking minute together, and when they're not awake they're sleeping in the same bed. So close are the boys that it's almost as if they each have two sets of parents, as Leo's mum (Lea Drucker) and dad (Marc Weiss) treat Remi as though he were their own son, while Remi's parents (Emilie Dequenne, Kevin Janssens) have a similar relationship with Leo.

The boys' innocence is shattered when they enter Belgium's equivalent of high school. Initially delighted that they've been put together in the same class, Leo and Remi's closeness is immediately picked up on by the sort of kids who need someone to target. Between girls asking if they're a couple, in a manner that suggests not malice but genuine curiosity, and boys hurling around homophobic slurs, Leo decides if he's to survive high school he should probably put some distance between himself and Remi. He joins the hockey team in an attempt to prove his masculinity, and stops calling over to Remi's house. This deeply hurts Remi, and with the boys unwilling or unable to discuss the issue, it leads to the inevitable playground brawl.

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This portion of Dhont's film plays in similar fashion to another similarly themed recent Belgian drama, Laura Wandel's Playground, in which a young girl distances herself from her older brother upon realising he's been marked by the school bullies for a campaign of torment. This is by no means a phenomenon unique to Belgian schools, but it is interesting how two Belgian filmmakers decided to explore the concept at the same time (perhaps Belgian readers can tell me if there was some specific incident of bullying that made the news there in recent years?).

Close is truly heartbreaking, and there's something about seeing a platonic friendship end in this way that's far more affecting than the collapse of a romantic relationship. In their screen debuts, Dambrine and De Waele prove themselves remarkable young talents. The latter is asked to evoke our sympathy, which he does in such a convincing manner that you want to reach into the screen and give him a reassuring hug and lie to him about how it's going to be okay. Dambrine has a somewhat more difficult task in provoking both ire and empathy from the viewer, but he truly sells Leo's mix of guilt and confusion.

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[Spoiler] The marketing has kept a key plot development secret, so turn away now if you wish to have it sprung on you as a surprise. Halfway through the movie Leo learns that Remi has taken his own life. Convinced, rightly or wrongly, that he is to blame, he spends much of the remainder of the movie wandering in an existential fugue. He's desperate to confess his perceived sin to Remi's mother, but can't bring himself to do it. Dequenne delivers such a tender portrayal of a grieving mother that we can understand his reluctance to add to her hurt. After all, she's told Leo she thinks of him as a second son – wouldn't it be cruel to take that away from her? A cliché of European cinema over the last couple of decades has seen characters attend classical musical performances and stare into the abyss as sombre music plays. It pops up once again here in the form of a school recital, but it has extra weight here as it's a performance at which Remi, a talented flautist, should have been taking centre stage. As Leo watches the blank expression of his late friend's emotionally numb mother, our hearts ache for their respective torment.

I imagine any parents who watch Dhont's devastating drama may start paying slightly more attention to their own children. Filmmakers can often over-estimate the importance of their work, but if Close causes one parent or teacher to step in before tragedy strikes, it will be the most important movie of the year.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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