One of the first scenes in Lucas Dhont’s Oscar-nominated film Close shows 13-year-old Léo quietly telling an imaginary story to help his best friend, Rémi, fall asleep. “You end up among the stars,” he whispers, “and it looks a little bit like this.” As Léo breathes softly, Rémi’s eyes slowly close. The next shot shows the two of them fast asleep, curled up together in the same bed, with a band of early morning sunlight stretching across Léo’s small shoulders.
The film lingers in the moment, as if it knows it’s seeing something both tenderly beautiful and utterly fleeting, and it can’t look away.
The film’s story unfolds as Léo tries to navigate the increasingly homophobic regulatory gaze of his classmates at school. He starts pulling away from Rémi, who ends up feeling confused and hurt. Neither of them talk about it.
The film is drawn back several times to the bed as an allegory for the growing distance between the boys. One night, while Rémi is asleep, Léo moves to a separate mattress on the floor. In the morning, he finds that Rémi is next to him again. “Go to your bed,” Léo says. They start wrestling in the early morning light, both playful and increasingly serious.
At one point Rémi hisses in pain. “Why did you bite me?” he asks, clearly taken aback.
“Because—” Leo answers. “Go to your bed.” There is so much unsaid in that moment. They both end up close to tears, facing away from each other with more distance between them than at any point previously in the film.
As I watched this scene, my heart pounded. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. It was clear that this was the moment where everything was going to change.
I still remember that moment in my own life. It was during recess in primary school. My best friend R.J. and I were playing, just the two of us, and I accidentally ran into him and knocked him onto the rough asphalt. He lay there for a moment, until a teacher asked him, “Are you okay?”
He answered quietly, “I want Jonathon.”
I felt bad that he had gotten hurt, but I loved the feeling of knowing that my best friend needed me. So, with a clumsy smile on my face I reached down to lift him back to his feet—and he punched me as hard as he could in the stomach.
Years later, I wrote a poem about it that still explains how that felt better than anything else I could write now.
Do you know what that felt like?
It felt like an ocean wave
Rising behind my eyes,
Because I was surprised,
I didn’t know this guy,
This boy who couldn’t cry.
How did we come to this,
That he would need his fists
More than he needed
We drifted apart in the years that followed. And although I had close friends throughout my childhood and adolescence, I never again had a connection like the one I had with him. For the first few years of school, we were one and the same. We touched each other constantly. We breathed the same air. We raced each other outside and challenged each other to playground stunts and pooled our money to buy candy from the local store.
I don’t remember when we started being best friends, but I know the moment we stopped. It felt like a punch to the stomach.
What Rémi and I both experienced stems from the deeply felt realization shared by many boys: that growing up means fitting in with the expectations of what it means to be a real man. You can’t be gay, for example, and you definitely can’t cry—and you can’t, and you can’t, and you can’t. The rules and expectations feel impossible. A large body of research connects the tenets of traditional masculinity ideology to adverse mental health among boys. Young men in Canada and the United States die by suicide at three to four times the rate of young women, a dire warning about a mental health crisis that comes to the fore in adolescence.
As they grow up, boys become increasingly aware of the narrow definition of what it means to be a man. Subsequent research grounded in boys’ own perspectives has made it clear that their adherence—and resistance—to cultural norms of masculinity forms a critical nexus for their mental health, particularly during adolescence. Despite the stereotype of boys as disengaged and indifferent, boys are capable of—and largely committed to—resisting masculine norms that are harmful to their well-being. Furthermore, researchers have suggested that the most important location of its resistance and its protective qualities is within boys’ close friendships.
In the 1990s, quantitative research claimed that friendships between boys provided them with autonomy and status rather than intimacy, empathy, or support. This has since been challenged by qualitative ethnomethodological research on the nuanced characteristics of boys’ friendships. Far from being emotionally deficient or relationally detached, boys in voice-centered studies speak about a breadth and depth of feeling within their close friendships.
But adolescence is also where this often changes. Much of this research has been pioneered by developmental psychologist Niobe Way. Her book, Deep Secrets: Boys, Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, was the catalyst for making Close.
“The pattern is that boys, 12, 13, 14, are very articulate about their desire for close friendships,” Way told me. “The clear theme is the desire for intimacy, to share secrets, to be vulnerable with another boy, to have a boy not laugh at them when they’re feeling down. You know, trying to find a friend like that or having a friend like that, and talking about loving them, not being able to live without them…it’s emotionally articulate, incredibly sensitive and vulnerable language that the boys were using.”
As the boys in her research grew older, however, Way noticed that language began to shift. The same boys who had once been so articulate about their close friendships closed themselves off. Where once there had been unhesitating stories of love, there was defensiveness, anger and indifference. But Niobe knew the boys— she had listened to them speak from their hearts for years—so she knew what they had lost.
“They would say ‘I don’t care’ so many times,” she remarked, “revealing, of course, that they very much did.”
It goes without saying that the lives of young people are often shaped at school. School is where young people spend most of their time and maintain most of their relationships with others. Because of this, recent decades have seen an increase in schools’ role in providing youth mental health services and promoting mental wellness. But schools are still not doing enough to help boys navigate their precarious journey to becoming a man, particularly when it comes to the development and maintenance of authentic peer relationships—even though we know how important those factors are for their mental health.
Although there are countless educators regularly going above and beyond, most schools don’t have the expertise or capacity to think about the significance and fragility of boys’ friendships. If you think about it, many schools actively undermine boys’ connections with each other.
Think about the teenagers who post their class assignments on their social media accounts at the start of each new school year, desperately hoping to find out that they have the same class as at least one of their friends. Or the boys in middle school who get told they can’t do an assignment with their best friend, because they’ll distract each other. Or a boy I know who is stuck feeling utterly lonely in a group chat that is laden with homophobic slurs and microaggressive jokes because they’re the only friends he has—because his school never once made it a priority to combat toxic masculinity or nurture vulnerability among its male students.
Each of these examples is indicative of our collective choice to value the status quo more than our boys’ well-being. When boys aren’t offered opportunities to explore what it means to be a man or maintain close connections with each other, they follow the roadmap that they’ve been given by culture at large. All too often, it’s one of dominance, aggression, and disconnection.
In an article published in Issues in Gender and Education, education researcher Debbie Epstein quotes a boy named Michael, who formed a close friendship with another boy in primary school. “We ran off together, holding hands, and all the other people in the class started shouting homo, homo. […] I didn’t understand what it meant, um, but I just realized that, you know, they were sort of shouting something abusive, and it was obviously something to do with Alan and something to do with us holding hands, so we stopped, and, um, felt quite guilty about it actually.”
Michael shares that a couple of days later, there was a joke going around where male students would go up to each other and ask if they were Homo sapiens. “I just heard the word homo,” Michael explains, “and I thought, no no no, I’m not a Homo sapiens and everyone laughed at me.”
I read that article years ago, but I never forgot its lesson: that to be a man you’re faced with the choice of enduring the merciless teasing of your peers, or the denial of your own humanity.
Either way, it costs your life.
There’s a flower native to the tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Indonesia that only blooms once every few years. It’s so special and fleeting that people buy tickets to the United States Botanic Garden just to see it before it’s gone.
That’s how I felt about Lucas Dhont’s Close. It’s laden with a wistfulness for what boys lose as they become men. Yes, there is sadness there. But we need to do more than just buy tickets to witness its passing.
Instead of an elegy, I want a protest song. When I think of the empty bed between Léo and Rémi, the gut punch between R.J. and me, or the stinging words that brought down Michael and Alan, I find myself willing to do so much more for change. We can’t just lament what boys lose. We have to fight for what they have—and change what we’re willing to give them.
This comes back to parents, the primary protection for growing boys and their closest model for what it means to be authentically connected to others. It lives within schools, where boys learn the script for manhood and navigate their resistance to it. And more than anywhere else, it unfolds in the inner lives of boys: in the unseen depth of their friendships and shared secrets, in the quiet breathing as they fall asleep, in their ability to say the words that are too often left unsaid.
Every now and then, I go back to that poem I wrote about the loss of my friendship in the ocean wave of becoming a man.
Sometimes I think I’m still writing the ending.
We all are.
Jonathon Reed is Youth Program Manager with Next Gen Men (nextgenmen.ca/), designing and implementing programs and professional development, and providing resources, to engage boys on topics including mental health, healthy relationships and gender equality. He also creates a podcast on the inner lives of boys called Breaking the Boy Code, and hosts Next Gen Men’s Discord server for masculine-identifying youth in Grades 7-9, NGM Boys+ Club.