NEW YORK – When Lukas Dhont was 12, a camera was thrust into his hands. For Dhont, who would come out as gay as a young adult, the camera was an escape from the strains and stereotypes he was beginning to feel pushed on him.
“I needed this other reality in which I could disappear because my own reality was one where I very much felt the pressures of these expectations and these codes and these norms that were put upon my body just because I was male,” the 31-year-old Belgian filmmaker says.
In his first home movies, Dhont created silly sci-fi shorts. His brother Michiel (now Dhont’s producer) would play an alien or a zombie. Later, Dhont discovered a wider movie world through things like the films of Chantal Akerman, and realized that cinema could be a place to confront reality, not run from it.
“I stopped filming the zombies and turned the camera toward me,” says Dhont.
Dhont’s second film, “Close,” dives back into that period of adolescence that was so formative for him. Set in the Belgian countryside, it’s about a friendship between two 13-year-old boys — Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) — whose tender intimacy is tested, tragically, when Léo, seeking to fit in with other, more macho boys, pushes Rémi away.
The film, which follows Dhont’s acclaimed but controversial 2018 debut “Girl,” is a sublimely delicate and devastating portrait of young friendship and the harsh intrusion of gender roles. “Close,” which A24 is expanding in limited release in the coming weeks, won the Grand Prix in May at the Cannes Film Festival, the festival’s second most prestigious prize. Last month, it was nominated for best international film at the Academy Awards. Dhont was at a New York hotel when it was announced.
“It was a sort of haze,” Dhont said in a recent interview. “I think I must have screamed in a high-pitched voice that made part of the lobby really panicked.”
For Dambrine and De Waele, “Close” has, itself, been an experience of friendship. Their own coming of age has happened over the course of making and releasing the film. Dambrine, whom Dhont cast after first seeing him on a train, was 13 when they began and just turned 16. De Waele was 12 when he auditioned and is now nearly 15.
“The funny thing is that they’re teenagers now,” Dhont says. “They have long hair and skateboards. It’s been a real gift to be able to experience this whole journey through the eyes of 14-year-olds.”
“The first day of casting, we were immediately very close to each other,” Dambrine says, speaking on a Zoom interview with De Waele. “I felt a big connection between us. There were 13 boys at the casting and I was immediately close to Gustav because the other boys were a bit boring. Sorry to the other boys.”
At the end of the day, all the actors filled out a questionnaire. One question: Who's your favorite person in the world? Hours after meeting each other, Dambrine wrote De Waele and De Waele wrote Dambrine.
“Lukas still thinks it was a plan,” says Dambrine.
“I think Lukas didn’t search for talent,” says De Waele. “He searched for friendship. When I came home from the casting, I said to my parents, ‘I made a friend.’”
Dhont’s first film, “Girl,” about a teenage ballerina’s gender transition, won the the Caméra d’Or for best first feature in Cannes. But when it arrived on Netflix, some in the LGBTQ community questioned Dhont’s casting of a non-transgender lead and criticized a scene of self-inflected violence as perpetuating a false narrative of gender transition. Dhont has called the backlash a “process of learning” about perspective in storytelling.
Some reviewers have also criticized “Close" and its drastic mid-movie shift of being emotionally manipulative. Dhont, though, cites statistics that show how suicide rates increase among young males as evidence of the fraught nature of teenage years for boys.
“The stakes are really high. At least they feel so to me,” says Dhont. “We hope there’s a strong sense of hope for this tragedy to not happen, for it to be avoided. I understand why the film moves as it moves.”
Part of Dhont’s motivation in writing “Close” with co-writer Angelo Tijssens was a kind of personal atonement. While Dhont had his own experiences of friends falling away from him, he also distanced himself from some relationships as a kid, and now regrets it.
“There were some friends out there that I actively pushed away out of fear,” Dhont says. “I deprived not only myself but them from the love they felt — and I mean love in the broadest sense of the term. I think this film is also an ode to them.”
A key resource in expanding “Close” beyond Dhont’s own experiences was psychologist Niobe Way’s 2013 book “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.” She interviewed hundreds of boys between the ages of 13 and 18. Their conversations, strikingly over time, charted how intimacy and friendships give way to distrust and isolation as boys become men.
“I wanted to speak about this society that has this dominance-based masculine culture and tells young men from a early age that there are certain traits valued, like independence, being more distant with the emotional world,” says Dhont. “So we tear them apart, not only from each other, but we rupture the language that connects them to the inside. There are many problems — and I’d even dare to say for a film with a small scope, world problems — that start with what seems like a small rupture but is actually a very big one.”
Making “Close” — an intimate process that included months of rehearsals and a production that encouraged looseness and warmth — was for De Waele and Dambrine the kind of open-hearted experience for which many of the boys of “Deep Secrets” might have yearned.
“It really changed my vision of life,” says Dambrine, “how friendship really works.”
It’s also been head-spinning. Says Dambrine: “In Cannes, everyone acts like you’re super famous but you’re just a normal kid who skipped school to come to the festival."
Now they’re headed to the Oscars for what will surely be an even more bewildering spectacle. They hope to see Austin Butler, a Cannes encounter, again. De Waele laments that it's impossible for him to meet his most idolized filmmaker — Billy Wilder — on his first trip to Los Angeles (Wilder died in 2002).
“I also want to see Cate Blanchett,” says Dambrine.
“Yeah, of course,” echoes De Waele.
Both boys may be edging closer to adulthood but they’re giddy in a childlike way talking about their transformative time with “Close.” As they get ready to sign off, Dambrine adds one last observation that he’s clung to.
“The movie’s talking about judgment,” Dambrine says. “In your life, people will always judge you. So why do you have to listen to them now and change for them, when you can just skip what they’re saying and live your life and be happy with yourself?”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP