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FilmWatch Weekly: Devastating drama ‘Close,’ plus Palestinian pressures in ‘Let It Be Morning’ and a triptych of James Baldwin

Also screening this week: films for Black History Month, the stoner comedy 'How High,' and the new found-footage horror film 'The Outwaters.'

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Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine in “Close

We live in a golden age of screen performances from children. European cinema in particular has a tradition of capturing naturalistic and self-possessed depictions of youth, from The 400 Blows to Ponette to 2021’s Petite Maman. The most recent example of this, and one of the best, comes in the achingly heartfelt drama Close from Belgian director Lukas Dhont.

In a small rural town, 13-year-olds Rémi (Gustav De Waele) and Léo (Eden Dambrine) are best friends. They bike to school every morning and spend nearly every moment together. They also display a physical intimacy—spooning in bed, resting their heads on each other’s shoulders—that inevitably draws attention from their classmates.

Questioned, but not teased, by peers about whether they are a couple, Léo quickly becomes defensive and starts to withdraw from the friendship. He signs up for the hockey team and spends more time with another, more masculine-presenting boy. Rémi, who remained silent on the question, is devastated by the new distance between them.

Whether or not sexual or romantic attraction existed between the pair, it’s clear that internalized homophobia and the overwhelming urge to be “normal” are to blame for the rupture in their relationship. De Waele and Dambrine are utterly authentic in their performances, and the supporting cast of Léa Drucker and Emilie Dequenne as the boys’ mothers matches them every step of the way.

There’s a narrative twist halfway through Close that turns it from a story about adolescent boys struggling with identity and emotion to a story about grief and closure. If you don’t want to know what it is, skip to the next paragraph. When Rémi is unexpectedly absent from a class field trip, it turns out that he has committed suicide, presumably despondent over the loss of Léo’s friendship. The remainder of the film hovers over Léo as he processes his sense of culpability and struggles to decide how to relate to Rémi’s mom. While this turn of events is a bit manipulative, and warrants a trigger warning, Dambrine’s wounded stoicism and emotional focus ring true.

A worthy nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Close is a shattering effort and an impressive second feature from Dhont, who based it on experiences in his own life. (Opens Friday, Feb. 10, at Cinema 21).

We also live in a fertile time for Middle Eastern and Israeli cinema. Never at a shortage for concrete metaphors about isolation, heritage, and family, the region’s films often use defiantly simple setups to explore complicated social and political truths. The latest instance of this is Let It Be Morning, Israeli director Eran Kolirin’s follow-up to the popular The Band’s Visit.

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Sami (Alex Bakri) is a tech worker in Jerusalem who returns to the Palestinian village where he grew up for his younger brother’s wedding. The next day, he and his wife, despite being Israeli citizens, are prevented from returning home when the village is locked down, for reasons never made fully clear, by the authorities. And because of poor cell reception, Sami is unable to get in touch with his employer.

Desperate to send an update, he befriends a young, naïve guard, who allows him beyond the barricade in the middle of the night to make a call. He learns that he’s been fired for missing work, and this spurs a growing radicalism in him that also serves to reconnect him to his family—at least some of them.

Blackouts, food and supply shortages, and the Kafkaesque inability to know when, or if, the blockade will be lifted, provide a vivid look at the everyday insults suffered by Palestinian villagers. Let It Be Morning also captures the way those indignities help the petty divisions between different factions (and different family members) persist, preventing the sort of concerted action that might do something about the problem.

As a film directed by an Israeli but featuring an all-Arab cast, Let It Be Morning is itself a symbol of cooperation between supposed adversaries. But it also tells us that we need more than symbols. (Opens Friday, Feb. 10, at the Living Room Theaters and on Feb. 24 at the Salem Cinema.)

ALSO OPENING:

Local indie theaters are offering a wide selection of programming to commemorate Black History Month. Just this week, the Clinton Street Theater is screening Love and Basketball from The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood on Monday, Feb. 13; the 5th Avenue Cinema has Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou all weekend long; and the Hollywood Theatre offers the stoner “classic” How High (also on Monday).

But the rarest opportunity of the week is the one to see a trio of short films about James Baldwin. James Baldwin Abroad is a three-part portrait of the American émigré who spoke truth to racist power on a level rarely matched, and who often (naturally) found his most receptive audiences overseas. In James Baldwin: From Another Place, he visits Istanbul in 1973, where Turkish filmmaker Sedat Pakay filmed him. Two years earlier, Baldwin has a combative debate with white British director Terence Dixon while visiting the Bastille in Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris. And the centerpiece of this collection is the provocatively titled Baldwin’s N***** (the original does not use asterisks), wherein Baldwin and Dick Gregory discuss colonialism and slavery’s legacies with a group of West Indian students in London in 1968. Trinidad and Tobago-born filmmaker Horace Ové captured the 45-minute session for posterity. This intellectually invigorating triptych screens on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Cinema 21.

Sneaking onto a screen at the Regal Bridgeport Village is the latest perplexing specimen of found-footage horror. I mention it here because it’s an example of the strengths of that subgenre as well as its weaknesses. The Outwaters starts off very strong, following a group of four—two brothers, an aspiring singer, and a stylist—as they head into the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video. The performances are lived-in and the characters feel genuine, which lends a psychological edge to things as unexplained thunder and other anomalies start to intrude on their fun. Once things tip fully over into terror, however, director (and one of the stars) Robbie Banfitch completely surrenders any coherence in the bloody and increasingly disturbing events that unfold. Ostensibly retrieved from three SIM cards that were found in the desert five years after the quartet disappeared, the film also quickly dispenses with the conceit that the characters themselves are continuing to film, while retaining a first-person visual perspective. I guess you might say it’s a mash-up of The Blair Witch Project and Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake. Hardcore horror fans should seek it out, but the rest of us should beware. (Opens Friday, Feb. 10, at the Regal Bridgeport Village and the Regal Old Mill Stadium in Bend.)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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