‘Close’: A story of friendship, told in a fresh and urgently new way

(4 stars)

In “Close,” Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele play Léo and Rémi, 13-year-old best friends living in rural Belgium. As the movie opens, the boys are deep inside the imaginary world they’ve shared since they were little, whispering about unseen invaders, smiling at shared jokes, running through the flower fields Léo’s family tends for a living. Soon, the two are starting school, where their relationship comes under casual but pointed scrutiny. “Are you together?” a girl asks at one point — and the question sends the boys into a vortex of confusion, rejection, pain, anger and agonizing guilt.

Written and directed by Lukas Dhont, “Close” — which has been nominated for an Oscar for best international film — is an exquisitely calibrated study of the inchoate impulses and gestures that make up so much of human experience. Training his camera to observe Dambrine and De Waele in their characters’ most un-self-conscious moments, Dhont achieves a perfect balance of intimacy and discretion. Although Léo and Rémi are like brothers — they share the same lanky, loose-limbed physique — they’re also different in essential ways. When one of them begins to pull away, Dhont does the audience and his protagonists the favor of making space for the fact that such ruptures are the result not just of overcompensation or cruelty, but of simple growth and change.

Or maybe they can be all of it, all at once. The drama of “Close” eventually centers not just on the boys, but on the adults in their lives, specifically Rémi’s mother, played in a quietly wrenching turn by Émilie Dequenne. What begins as an idyllic portrayal of the liberation, sweetness and unguarded emotions of youth evolves into an equally beautiful but bittersweet reflection on the getting of wisdom at its toughest and most painful. In obliquely addressing masculine codes of aggression, reticence and emotional distance, Dhont never resorts to billboard statements or lectures. Rather, he allows those observations to emerge naturally, in a story whose meaning shifts as organically as his characters do. (He does something wonderful with structure, whereby Léo and Rémi’s fraternal bond is recapitulated later in the film.) The title of “Close” starts out as an adjective, describing Léo and Rémi’s preternatural bond; eventually, it becomes a noun, as one chapter ends and another begins. Dhont tells a familiar story in what feels like a fresh and urgently new way, with sensitivity, sadness and promising glimmers of hope.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material involving suicide and brief strong language. In French and Flemish with subtitles. 105 minutes.

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