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Captivating Study of First Love and Coming Out

Captivating Study of First Love and Coming Out

Captivating Study of First Love and Coming Out

At first glance, Young Hearts seems to resemble Lukas Dhont’s Close — in its rural Belgian town setting and its focus on two early teenage boys navigating the tricky boundaries between friendship and romance. But closer acquaintance reveals Flemish filmmaker Anthony Schatteman’s first feature to be something more in line with Heartstopper or Love, Simon, entirely without the tragic dimensions of Dhont’s Oscar-nominated drama. Impressive newcomer Lou Goossens plays a 14-year-old boy thrown into emotional confusion by his attraction to a new neighbor in a film whose queer positivity should be a balm to LGBTQ kids wrestling with their sexuality as well as to parents struggling with acceptance.

That doesn’t mean the usual conflicts of brooding isolation, initial rejection and fear of stigmatization are absent. But one of the chief selling points of Young Hearts is its sincere depiction of coming out in a supportive environment, unfolding in bucolic settings bathed in a gorgeous summer glow. While Schatteman doesn’t shy away from sentimentality and even leans in at times to cliché, the film succeeds thanks to its warmth and emotional authenticity.

Young Hearts

The Bottom Line

A gentle charmer.

Venue: Provincetown Film Festival (Narratives)
Cast: Lou Goossens, Marius De Saeger, Geert Van Rampelberg, Emilie De Roo, Dirk Van Dijck, Sara Rogiers
Director-screenwriter: Anthony Schatteman

1 hour 39 minutes

Since premiering in Berlin’s Generation sidebar earlier this year, it has been playing the summer festivals and will open in the U.S. through Strand Releasing at an unscheduled date in the fall.

Elias (Goossens) is a happy kid living with his father Luk (Geert Van Rampling), his mother Nathalie (Emilie De Roo) and older brother Maxime (Jul Goossens) in a small country town. While the location is never named, the film was shot in the East Flanders municipality of Wetteren, with its farmlands and green fields and riverside beauty providing a vibrant backdrop. Elias is content enough to take his girlfriend Valerie (Sara Rogiers) along to the cheesy pop performances of his dad, who’s something of a local celebrity. But his relationship with Valerie seems more like that of siblings than youthful sweethearts.

When a new family moves in across the street, Elias falls into an easy friendship with Alexander (Marius De Saeger), who’s also 14 but taller and physically more developed. Having moved there from French-speaking Brussels, Alexander also gives off the relaxed air of a cool kid, with his floppy hair and skater-chic wardrobe. He’s confident but never cocky, slipping into Elias’ circle of friends with an openness to which all of them respond.

Stopping by the river while biking home from school, the two boys have a conversation about love. Elias confesses that while he and Valerie are supposedly together, he’s unclear about what love should feel like, while Alexander casually reveals he was in love with a boy last year. The change that spreads across Goossens’ expressive face as he contemplates his new friend with a mixture of curiosity and surprise is the quiet prelude to a whole wave of unfamiliar feelings as their bond deepens.

While Elias has been bullied at school, Alexander tells him he took up judo because of similar experiences. A group of seniors toss a homophobic taunt their way, but Alexander shows them he’s not intimidated.

As the pair start hanging out more frequently — swimming together in the river, exploring an abandoned old house, literally (if chastely) having a roll in the hay at the farm of Elias’ grandpa Fred (Dirk Van Dijck) — Schatteman deftly plants the anticipation of mutual attraction. It seems right out of the rom-com playbook that their first kiss happens when they dash for shelter from a sudden downpour, but it’s tender and affecting all the same.

While Elias doesn’t pull away from the kiss, he’s mildly freaked out by it, sparking a change into more withdrawn behavior that his perceptive mother picks up on immediately. He starts keeping his distance from Alexander even if his longings are clear. A day trip to Brussels, where they visit Alexander’s aunt and uncle (Florence Hebbelynck, Wim Opbrouck) at their club helps Elias loosen up a little; he even seems pleased to be introduced as Alexander’s “petit copain.”

An extended shot in which DP Pieter Van Campe’s camera slowly closes in on Elias’ enraptured face as a drag performer rehearsing at the club (Lady Lana) sings a number about embracing life is just lovely.

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But it takes more than a romantic ballad to get Elias over his fears, causing him to back away nervously when Alexander gives him a hug in public. He tries forcing himself to commit to being with Valerie. In an amusing nod to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Elias and Valerie dress for her “famous duos” costume party as the young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in those roles — even if Elias later admits to Alexander that he’s never seen the film. Schatteman pushes the reference even further by not once but twice mimicking the shot in which Romeo gazes with lovelorn eyes through a fish tank.

Things clearly are destined not to go Valerie’s way, but to the script’s credit, it never compromises the character’s dignity, communicating her gradual acceptance of her boyfriend’s true nature with fond glances rather than words.

In the sugary but captivating conclusion, Elias finally builds up the resolve to follow his heart through the sage advice of his widowed grandfather, whose late wife was instrumental in nurturing Elias’ talent for drawing.

Schatteman possibly could have skipped the sappy vocal tracks heard here and there, and the early bullying element lacks follow-through. But this remains a winning take on coming out and coming of age, conveying the anxiety and ultimate liberation of a kid terrified of his feelings. The film stops short of showing physical urges between Elias and Alexander, but nonetheless delivers fully in its depiction of the main character embracing his inchoate sexual identity.

Young Hearts looks terrific; the interludes with the boys biking along country roads serve as delicate punctuation. And the few quick scenes in Brussels use the historic capital’s architectural splendors to subtly suggest why same-age Alexander is so much more emotionally evolved than Elias.

Performances from the entire cast are appealing, notably Van Rampelberg as the loving if somewhat self-absorbed father, surprised to discover how little he knows about his youngest son; De Roo as Elias’ far more emotionally intuitive mother (a scene in which he finally opens up to her is a genuine tearjerker); Van Dijck as a man of the land whose affection for his grandson is unconditional; and De Saeger as dreamboat Alexander, whose self-assurance and comparative sophistication never exclude depth or vulnerability.

The glue binding the whole story together is the remarkable Goossens’ Elias, whose silences as much as his raw intensity reveal the turmoil gripping him inside. The boy’s path to understanding himself and his desires will strike chords with anyone who ever struggled with self-acceptance.

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