Content Warning: Close and this article deal with suicide
I hate Close, a Belgian Oscars 2023 Best International Feature Film nominee by director Lukas Dhont written by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens, with absolutely all of my heart. It’s a story about two 13-year-old best friends who are inseparably close until they start their first days of high school together and incessant homophobic comments and questions about their closeness, their touchiness, and the nature of their relationship drives Leo Eden Dambrine away from Remi (Gustav De Waele). What begins as a slow, pretty, and tender film about friendship slowly devolves into a painful display of poor parenting, poor schooling, and tired stereotypes about the nature of teenagers. But when Remi kills himself after months of being distanced, disparaged, and pilloried by Leo, the movie steps into irredeemable territory as it tries to pass trauma and downright torture upon Leo as emotional and moving entertainment.
Truly, I cannot recall the last time I was this upset about a movie. Perhaps it’s the glorification of its content by its Oscar nomination. Perhaps it’s because this week is the ten-year anniversary of a classmate’s death during my own high school days. Maybe it’s just because I’m oversensitive to the ways we depict adults’ treatment of and care for children because of my own trauma, or maybe it’s my own deep commitment to being a better educator and trusted adult for children than these types of stories ever portray. But let me attempt to walk through exactly why I find Close appalling and offensive.
Foremost, this is a movie about two kids. They’re acting their very darndest, and 50 percent of the credit I even do give this movie is for the two main child actors for putting on their best faces throughout the whole thing. Most of the other kids are poor to fine, but these two are directed well and given good lines. They’re fun and funny throughout the first half of the movie. Also, a single kudos to the lighting and design in this movie; it’s the best-lit film I’ve seen in a long, long time and is rife with color. Plus the long moments of silence throughout the film are effective, even if I hate the context they’re happening within.
Premising a whole movie around kids failing to communicate with each other, growing apart, and being influenced by homophobia and bullying—this is all perfectly fair game. But when you cross into storytelling that unrelentingly puts an unfair burden on children to carry all of the emotional heft, the tragedy, and the trauma of the story upon their shoulders alone, giving them no reprieve, no support, and no redemption? That’s when you’re starting to walk on shaky ground.
Of course, this is the stark reality for plenty of kids. I was willing to be mad at adults sucking for about half of the time I watched Close. But when the movie felt like it was beginning to go out of its way to make its adults terrible and levy an onslaught of closed-off systems of support onto Leo, it completely lost me. There are so many adults in Leo’s life who claim to love or care for him. And what angers me is that I get the sense the movie thinks these adults are actually trying their best. Maybe they ever are trying their best.
But their best is pathetic.
It does nothing to make me feel empathetic for them whatsoever, only loathsome at their complete inability to simply talk to their children about painfully obvious problems they’re experiencing. Leo’s parents are barely in the movie, intentionally to show their emotional distance. They’re busy farmers who have no way of talking about such things as feelings. His older brother, the closest thing in his family to a pillar of support, is barely even named and can never quite reach the low bar of offering true comfort to his grieving brother.
And Remi’s parents literally see him as a second son. The father is not a huge part of the movie, but his mother (Émilie Dequenne) is practically the second main character. She takes months to reach out to Leo, which at first seems almost fair enough, she’s grieving too, and it’s clear she at least understands that Leo and Remi were drifting apart in his final days. But the direction their relationship goes from here is utterly unacceptable for a parent who claims to love her son’s best friend.
Never has a movie that traumatized children through the neglect they unwittingly bestow upon them by the adults in their lives moved an adult to be more attentive. Neither has a movie such as this comforted somebody who was bereaved. All that Close does is excuse its adults for their miserable abilities to communicate with their children for the sake of attempting to craft a tragic tale at the expense of two boys who deserve nothing but to truly know what it looks like to be loved.
Talk to your children. Tell them when they’re being stupid. Tell them when you know they’re lying, that you know they’re hurting, that you don’t need them to tell you everything but that you’re here to help them no matter what and no matter how long it takes. Tell them when you’re lying. Tell them when you’re hurting. Tell them that it’s okay that not everything is okay, that they’re in pain, that it will take a long time for the pain to go away or transform into something else.
Love your children.
Talk to your children.
Do not let movies that amount to torturing children in the name of good entertainment get away with constantly continue to get away with portraying childhood as naturally painful and adulthood as naturally ineffectual. We deserve better portrayals of hurtful, painful subjects. We can make better portrayals.
Movies don’t need to have happy endings. They don’t need to make good moral points or have characters who you appreciate or relate or find redeemable. They can be good and have the opposite of all that. But Close is a movie that thrives off of constructing a world where pain is the point and every step along the way is designed to put children through more and more trauma. It has no reason for being other than to traumatize its children with nothing to show for it but more harm, and for that, I cannot feel anything but rage over it.
Close is playing now in select theaters.