With so many bad American movies cluttering the market, I find it more interesting and rewarding to take a look at some of the foreign films that will be competing in the forthcoming Academy Awards. Two of the best that I recommend with four stars and no reservations are in the same coming-of-age genre, with equally exquisite results.
CLOSE ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
From Belgium, Close is a fresh, moving and unforgettable chronicle of masculine trust and devotion between two 13-year-old boys from neighboring farms who experience a blush of first love they don’t understand because it happens to be not with outsiders, but with each other. Sharp and talented and sensitive, Leo and Remi have grown up together, bicycled to school every day together, spent almost every night together, and bonded. Leo is athletic and outgoing, while Remi is a musical prodigy who naively dreams of fame and fortune in concerts with a classical orchestra. As they mature, their feelings grow, slowly but intensely. At school, the other kids innocently tease them, jokingly calling them a married couple. As their interests become more divisive, Leo pulls away and devotes his energy to sports, leaving less time for Remi. They grow apart, as teenagers do when they outgrow each other. So why do they feel sadness, loss, resentment and then anger?
Clearly they are experiencing the complex emotions of first love without the knowledge or sophistication to define their feelings. Eventually they resort to violence. They don’t understand their feelings or comprehend why they even have them. When Remi dies unexpectedly (illness, suicide, a broken heart?) all of Leo’s conflicting emotions collide, leaving him lost and unable to cope. It’s important to point out that this relationship is not sexual, and there is not a single hint of homosexuality, but the movie is heartbreaking precisely because it proves that even teenagers are capable of intense emotional feelings even if they don’t know what those feelings are. In a scene similar to the one in Brokeback Mountain when Heath Ledger pays a posthumous visits to Jake Gyllenhaal’s old room and caresses a shirt still hanging in the closet, Leo rekindles a friendship with Remi’s Mom and feels a wave of emotion running through his body like a disturbing chill when he remembers what it was like when his best friend still lived there. The ages are decades apart but the feelings are the same. Belgian writer-director Lukas Dhont sustains the balance of mood and physical beauty with a thrilling eloquence and Eden Dambrine as Leo and Gustav DeWaele as Remi are stunning young discoveries who will not easily be forgotten.
THE QUIET GIRL ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Meanwhile, from Ireland, The Quiet Girl, made with sensitivity and care by first-time writer-director Colm Bairead, combines serene editing, quiet reserves of strength, and subdued performances that allow you to think and feel instead of just watch. It mercifully uses words sparingly, without the padded pointlessness injected by most commercially driven American filmmakers to give viewers more time to waste more money at the concession stand. Movies rarely attempt to show the power in what is understated and restrained; this one is truly about what happens between the lines to fill in the spaces.
Set in 1981, the narrative explores the tortured world of a 9-year-old girl named Cait (superbly played by enchanting newcomer Catherine Clinch), one of four children born to a father who gambled away the family’s resources and a downtrodden mother pregnant with her fifth baby. Neglected at home, bullied at school and falling behind on her reading, Cait is one more problem her parents don’t want to deal with, so they send her away to live with some unknown older relatives for the summer on a dairy farm in the middle of nowhere. It is there that dirty, confused, ragged, underprivileged Cait finds the warmth, attention and clean clothes she has been denied at home without the harsh indifference and cruelty she used to get from something as simple as wetting the bed. Over time, Cait experiences a transformation that changes her life, brought on by total strangers. It’s amazing how life-affirming something as simple as leaving an extra cookie on the table beside an empty plate can be.
It’s all accomplished through trial and error, but mainly through a colorful palette of emotional grace and intensity in director Bairead’s clean, orderly script and the sweet, reserved, emotional directness of Catherine Clinch’s blue eyes. Spoken in undecipherable Gaelic with merciful English subtitles, you feel what she’s feeling through nuance instead of dialogue. What a triumph for a debut director. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Close and The Quiet Girl may not be the kind of movies that lure record-breaking crowds, but they are a pair of films for which adjectives like gentle, lyrical and heartbreaking were invented.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.