Young Hearts (2024)

Young Hearts Review

Young Hearts

Attention casting directors: Lou Goossens is an actor to look out for in his first feature film role. He’s a naturalistic performer capable of conveying nuanced shades of inner suffering at a young age. In this case, he portrays Elias, a 14-year-old living in rural Belgium with his affectionate, mostly ordinary family the one slight anomaly being his dad, Luk (Geert Van Rampelberg), who is basically a square personally but has somehow become a middle-aged pop sensation with an imminent hit single.

Dad kicks things off by belting out his signature tune, which declares that “first love lights the fire in your heart,” and it turns out that description is not bad as far as summaries go. Soon after, however, the family gets a new next-door neighbor in the form of Alexander (Marius De Saeger).

Elias doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to explain what exactly he’s feeling some mixture of discomfort and fascination about this person. He and his schoolmates talk about “love,” but it’s clear enough that Elias himself doesn’t really know what he means by the word, at least not romantically. When Alexander joins their circle, Elias is taken aback during a private conversation with him. The new kid casually mentions having been in love with another boy himself.

It may be rarer than it ought to be that queer youth narratives recognize coming-to-terms-with-your-orientation processes can be shaped by something other than either overt homophobia or idealized LGBT pride. Elias is growing up in an accepting yet still heteronormative environment; he has internalized the notion that boys liking boys isn’t “normal.” His family aren’t the kind of raging homophobes you would have found in this sort of drama 10 years ago, but nor have they created any context where it wouldn’t be utterly earthshaking to Elias’ sense of self to realize that he likes Alexander the way he’s supposed to like girls.

Elias’ parents don’t evince actively toxic attitudes, but it hasn’t occurred to them to create a context in which they’d implicitly communicate that he doesn’t need to hide who he is. The creation of a closeted identity or witnessing its embryonic phase, anyway can be even more painful than observing a similar yet more conventionally externally imposed oppression narrative, because it shows how even a merely neutral culture can prevent people from feeling entirely safe in their own skin.

The debut feature by Anthony Schatteman (a prolific shorts director with various TV series to his name), “Young Hearts” feels serenely self-assured in ways not every first film does. It’s not the kind of movie that makes big waves or sets out to shock, but rather one that announces the arrival of a career likely to be spent making solid if not earth-shaking features.

Comparisons with Lukas Dhont’s splashier but less organic “Close” as another recent Belgian drama about self-questioning teenage boys are perhaps unavoidable. But while gentler and less blatantly tearjerking than that accoladed title, “Young Hearts” benefits from an affective directness and lived-in emotional truthfulness that serve it well.

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