“Close” begins in an idyll of childhood friendship, with two boys at play — running through fields of flowers, riding bicycles and inventing games, inexhaustibly happy in each other’s company. To say that Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), who live in a rural area in the French-speaking part of Belgium, are inseparable would be to risk understatement. They’re like a single organism, a tangle of growing limbs and lazy daydreams.
It seems inevitable — though of course not to them — that their bliss will not last. The Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s film, a nominee for this year’s best international film Oscar, tracks the changes in Léo and Rémi’s relationship from summer vacation through the school year. The boys, in the early throes of adolescence, face new feelings and social pressures. Before, it wasn’t necessary to define or defend their relationship, but now it has come under scrutiny in an atmosphere of casual homophobia and the enforcement, both subtle and crude, of gender norms and expectations.
Soccer matches are punctuated by slurs. A posse of mean girls in the cafeteria wants to know if Léo and Rémi are a couple. Léo is quick to answer no, which may be the first sign of a rift. The love between him and Rémi is self-evident, but they are entering a phase of confusion about what it might mean. Léo starts socializing with other boys, and takes up ice hockey. Later, he will acknowledge that he pushed Rémi away, but in the moment he’s preoccupied, like a surfer, with keeping his balance on what feels like a treacherous and challenging wave. He can’t see — or chooses to ignore — how much he is hurting his friend.
That understanding comes too late. A tragedy occurs in the middle of “Close” — something a viewer might have dreaded and hoped was not coming — that splits the movie in two. What had been a delicate, beautifully modulated examination of intimacy becomes a study in grief.
Which is to say a blunter, more conventional story. The narrative beats — moments of rueful humor, suppressed anguish and cathartic weeping — arise in predictable sequence. The external world is mined for metaphors to match the inner lives of the characters. Léo’s parents work on a flower farm. Rémi’s mother (Émilie Dequenne) is on the staff of a maternity hospital, and Dhont is not averse to exploiting the symbolic potential of those jobs. The cycle of seasonal weather from one summer to the next aligns a bit too neatly with the emotional weather of the plot, as if pain and healing were agricultural processes.
Still, the roteness of the film’s second half — reinforced by Valentin Hadjadj’s over-insistent score — can’t dispel the exquisite insight of its earlier scenes or the heart-rending precision of the performances. Dambrine and De Waele are wonderfully natural, conveying the complexities of youthful experience with impressive directness and poise. Dambrine, who carries a heavier burden, never falters, and is well supported by Dequenne and Léa Drucker (who plays Leo’s mother). The world they inhabit is fleshed out with unassuming, sensitive realism, even when the story falters.
Rated PG-13. Intense emotional distress. In Dutch, French and Flemish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.