Close review: Homophobia unravels a childhood friendship in a heartbreaking Oscar-nominated drama

Is there anything sadder in a boy’s life than the moment they realise they have to become men? You often see it play out in real time, where a kind of free-wheeling innocence becomes corrupted by essentialist ideas of what a man needs to be. Sports are a must. Sensitivity is a problem. Touch another boy by all means, but only if it’s a macho thwack or a hearty backslap. Anything else is suspect.

Lukas Dhont’s Belgian drama Close – a Best International Film nominee at this month’s Oscars – makes great hay of these moments. We see 13-year-old Léo (Eden Dambrine) pushing away the head of his best friend Rémi (Gustav De Waele), who’s resting it lazily on his chest. We see their sharing of a bed at sleepovers suddenly become loaded with meaning, so Léo sleeps elsewhere. We see the panic that appears in Léo’s eyes when a squad of girls ask him if he and Rémi are a couple.

Léo and Rémi aren’t a couple in any traditional sense of the word. Sexuality hasn’t – as far as we know – been a factor in their relationship until their peers suggest it is. But when others start to project onto them, insisting there’s something unusual about their physical and emotional intimacy, it creates a fissure between both boys. Léo grows distant. Rémi is left confused and bereft.

There is a brutal honesty to these early scenes in Close, which are played with heartbreaking subtlety. We tend to think of homophobia in its broadest strokes – protest signs, institutional cruelty, the alt-right at drag shows. But it also needles its way into the quietest of places, distorting our perceptions of things both simple and entirely meaningless. For Léo, merely standing near Rémi for a substantial period of time begins to set the cogs turning.

Sadly, Close starts to paint in broader strokes as it goes on. There is a hard turn at its midpoint that feels coldly calculated, and it’s something the film never quite recovers from. Dhont’s visuals are strong and sumptuous and he coaxes spellbindingly naturalistic performances from first-time actors Dambrine and De Waele, but a gulf in tone separates both halves of his film. Hushed glances between estranged friends give way to maximalist drama and heavy-handed symbolism, as if the everyday horror of growing up needs literal horror to be cinematic.

Dir: Lukas Dhont. Starring: Eden Dambrine, Gustav De Waele, Émilie Dequenne, Léa Drucker, Kevin Janssens. 12A, 104 minutes.

‘Close’ is in cinemas