Along with the mighty Scandinavians, the neighboring Dutch and Belgians keep producing interesting and poignant cinema despite often making their appearance without too much clamor, yet proving that European filmmaking is alive.
Imagine my stupor and frustration a few months ago after watching a DVD screener of UK’s Peccadillo-distributed Boys (Jongens) when I find out this brilliant Dutch coming of age (and coming out) tale was actually a TV movie in its native Netherlands.
I was mildly comforted by learning that the film did so well on television that it managed to score a subsequent release in Dutch theatres whose further success led to sell distribution rights in major markets like the US and the UK and a busy schedule of festival runs, including last week’s latest edition of the prestigious LGBT-themed Iris Prize Festival in Cardiff. Yet this wonderful film deserves much more than a straight to home entertainment distribution.
Director Mischa Kamp has pointed out how her interest wasn’t a plot-driven story but to capture the blooming of unexpected feelings between two young boys and focus on the struggle that usually comes with it.
The result is a poetically minimalistic portrait of youth, told beautifully through a simple and naturalistic, yet striking visual style, where cinematography truly becomes the main storytelling tool with its effective use of composition and color palette.
The core of the film is 15-year-old Sieger (Gijs Blom) who’s spending his summer working hard with the local all-boys athletics team he’s part of, training for the relay national championship. His best friend Stef (Stijn Taverne) is also in the team and they usually run together but one day they get paired with two other boys, Tom (Miron Wouts) and Marc (Ko Zandvliet) as the coach has singled the four of them out to represent the team at the race.
As the four boys start training all together Sieger and Marc hit it off pretty quickly and one day, a post-training swim in the lake changes their friendship forever. When Tom and Stef get out of the water and are ready to go back home, Sieger is clearly torn since Marc is staying a bit longer.
He leaves as well but doesn’t go too far before turning around to reach Marc back at the lake. They’ve never been together alone before and this time the splashing and drowning games end with a spontaneous as much as unexpected kiss.
Before taking off Sieger points out he’s not gay but as he gets to spend more time with Marc it becomes evident how he’s overwhelmed and doesn’t know how to deal with his feelings. Marc has a normal and stable family life with his parents and little sister who albeit appearing briefly, are hinted at as the kind of people who wouldn’t have any problems with their son being gay.
Sieger on the other hand has lost his mum to a motorbike accident and lives with his loving father Theo (Ton Kas) and his older brother Eddy (Jonas Smulders) who’s a bit of a reckless hot head and causes much distress and worries to their father when he shows up with a motorbike.
As his best friend Stef gets involved with a girl and tries to push Sieger to court the girl’s friend so that they can double date, our overwhelmed protagonist uses the situation as the ideal way to dissimulate his feelings, but in doing so he inevitably pushes Marc away. With the national race fast approaching and his inner turmoil haunting him more and more, Sieger needs to face his feelings once and for all.
Dutch director Mischa Kamp has established herself with several children’s movies but this time around she takes her delicate touch to another level, handling a story of first young gay love with intelligence, grace and tasteful naturalism. And just to clear any doubt, the film is innocuous since it shows nothing more than kissing and trust me, that’s only to the film’s advantage.
The scope of Boys is that of exploring the insurmountable power of first love and focusing on the idealism of romance rather than sexual passion. Yet the sexual awakening is there, hinted at, just in the sweetest of ways and it comes across so nuanced in subtext through the outstanding performances of the two teenage actors portraying Sieger and Marc. Gijs Blom and Ko Zandvliet are absolutely fantastic at conveying all their emotions with mostly their eyes, their faces and their whole body language.
These two young talented actors’ chemistry is just impossible to ignore. They are two magnets drawn to each other but literally opposites in the way they handle it. Marc is extroverted and assured in his feelings and doesn’t care about anyone’s opinion. Sieger is vulnerable and confused and keeps withdrawing every time they get closer. This emotional waltz is compelling to watch and you can’t help but root for this young love to bloom.
Filmmaker Mischa Kamp has noted how “many teenagers experience gay feelings but see it as impossible love, yet homosexuality exists in all layers of our society and it’s an important theme that needs to be addressed”. And she couldn’t be more right.
Think how in the Netherlands Boys aired on a Dutch channel for children and young teens. Could you ever imagine Disney Channel commission it, despite lacking any explicit content? Of course not! How scandalous it'd be to show our children something that actually exists in real life and that some of them will most definitely experience! As if declining to include LGBT content in youth-friendly films would make homosexuality less real…
Just like its protagonist, Boys is quiet, delicate and poetic. A beautiful portrait of the confusion and discovery that define adolescence, elegantly shot and gracefully acted by its young cast. In a cinematic landscape in dire need of relatable LGBT cinema that can speak to wider audiences and educate to acceptance and equality, Boys focuses on the most important type of coming out, the one within ourselves: the path to self-acceptance.
This film is a must-see especially for teenagers and their families and a pleasant reminder that if we pay attention, cinema has the power to change the world.
Boys is out on DVD on October 13th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor