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Casting directors take note: Lou Goossens in this first feature film role is an actor to watch out for, naturalistic and able to convey subtle shades of inner turmoil, despite his young age. Goossens plays Elias, a 14-year-old living in rural Belgium with his loving and mostly normal family — the slight exception being his father, Luk (Geert Van Rampelberg), who, while a pretty straight arrow in a personal sense, is enjoying unlikely success as a midlife pop sensation, with a hit single in the pipeline.

The film opens with dad belting out his signature number, which is all about how “first love lights the fire in your heart,” which of course turns out to be a decent summary of the film. Shortly after, the family get a new neighbor in the form of Alexander (Marius De Saeger).

Elias lacks the emotional vocabulary to articulate quite what the sense of awkwardness and intrigue that he feels around the newcomer might mean. He and his school friends talk about “love,” but it’s pretty clear that Elias at least has no real idea what he means by the word, at least in a romantic sense. When Alexander is welcomed into their group, Elias is blindsided during a one-on-one conversation with the new kid, as Alexander tells him quite casually that he himself was previously in love with a boy.

It’s not as common as it should be to see queer youth narratives which fully understand that the process of beginning to figure out your orientation might be shaped by something more nuanced than either explicit homophobia or idealized LGBT pride. Elias is growing up in an accepting but still heteronormative society; he has internalized the idea that boys who like boys are not the norm. His family aren’t the raging homophobes that you might have found in this kind of drama 10 years ago, but nor have they created a context where it is anything other than shocking to Elias’ sense of self to realize that he likes Alexander the way that he feels he is supposed to like girls.

Elias’ parents don’t express actively toxic attitudes, but it hasn’t occurred to them to create a context in which he would implicitly understand that he doesn’t need to hide who he is. Witnessing the embryonic construction of a closeted identity is in some ways far more painful than watching a similar but more conventional narrative of externally imposed oppression, because it demonstrates how even a merely neutral society can impede people from feeling secure in their own identities.

“Young Hearts” is the first feature from Anthony Schatteman, a prolific shorts director, with several TV series to his name, and his direction feels calm and quietly confident in ways that is not always the case with a debut. “Young Hearts” is not the sort of film that grabs headlines or sets out to scandalize, but the kind that signals the beginning of a sustained career in feature filmmaking.

Comparisons with Lukas Dhont’s splashier but less organic “Close” as another recent Belgian drama about self-questioning teenage boys, are perhaps inevitable, but “Young Hearts,” while gentler and less obviously tear-jerking, benefits from a sincere and lived-in emotional honesty which serves its aims well.



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