Boys (Jongens): Film Review

PUPKIN
Strong performances and an admirably loose-limbed screenplay elevate this mixture of sports movie and coming-out narrative.

Dutch female director Mischa Kamp casts young talents Gijs Blom and Ko Zandvliet in this sweet tale of teenage self-discovery.

LUXEMBOURG -- For an athletic Dutch teenager, dealing with his burgeoning sexuality isn’t quite as straightforward as running an athletics relay race, though unlike her protagonist, Dutch female director Mischa Kamp (Winky’s Horse) hits both the sports sequences and the emotional ones pretty much straight out of the park in her intimate and touching feature, Boys (Jongens).

Originally shot for TV, this good-looking and well-acted film has been a success for both sales agent M-Appeal and with audiences, with the local distributor Cinemien taking the unusual step of giving it a modest spin in theaters this May after it already premiered on Dutch TV in February. Wolfe Releasing has scooped up U.S. rights, while the U.K., Germany and a handful of other territories have also already been sold, ensuring this sincere if familiar film will have no problem finding its rightful place in the pink pantheon of coming-out movies.

Cute teenager Sieger (Gijs Blom) is a pensive and caring lad who seems to be compensating for the rebellious attitude of his older brother (Jonas Smulders). Their somewhat lonesome widower Dad (Ton Kas) brings up his boys the best he can, though clearly he’s got more good intentions than educational insight. To escape from home, Sieger spends a lot of time on the racetrack, where he trains so fanatically that his coach (Ferdi Stofmeel) suggests he move to the relay race group, who are preparing for a championship.

One of the four boys on the team is the slightly older Marc (Ko Zandvliet), who almost immediately catches Sieger’s eye -- or its it simply that Sieger notices that the curly-haired cutie keeps stealing looks at him? Indeed, the film’s screenplay, by Jaap-Peter Enderle and Chris Westendorp, is admirably loose-limbed throughout, with behavior and decisions the result of not one (potentially very reductive) desire or need but instead the outcome of several connected events or possibilities.

Sieger’s same-sex yearning finally crystallizes when the four boys on the relay-race team go swimming at a rural pond after practice -- cue the Frisian cows in the background -- and the other two teammates have to go home for dinner. Marc then suggests Sieger stay on for a bit more fun, which he initially rejects. But as soon as the other two boys headed home are out of sight, the uncertain and confused Sieger takes the brave decision to bike back to the pond. The boys’ subsequent horsing around ends in a tender smooch in the water that Kamp and cinematographer Melle van Essen capture in an unexpected overhead shot that’s both esthetically pleasing and laden with symbolic meaning, as seen from above, the two kissing teenagers could be of any sex.

Sieger’s emotional immaturity and the growing realization he might not be into girls after all -- even if girls are into him -- provide the drama of the film’s second half, with the teenager’s seeming indecisiveness wearing out both himself and the more self-assured Marc and their championship training impacted by the boys’ complicated rapport.

Since the film combines sports-movie tropes with a traditional coming-out narrative, there’s little in terms of plot twists that will shock even the most casual moviegoer. But clearly, Kamp’s intention is not to surprise but rather to move the viewer with her depiction of a first love that’s more confusing than most but that’s beautifully mapped out here. In order to capture the biggest possible audience, a clear effort has also been made to keep this story involving 15-year-olds as PG-rated as possible.

17-year-old Blom, the son of stage actress Marloes van den Heuvel, started his career as the 10-year-old male lead in Ciske de Rat, a popular local variation on the musical Annie. Thankfully, despite his theater roots, almost his entire performance is constructed out of moments of restraint and his Sieger is a convincingly quiet and withdrawn character who only wants to do what’s right and who finds that already difficult task further complicated by feelings he didn’t see coming. Opposite him, Zandvliet is radiant and easy to fall for as the more uncomplicated Mark, even if his role is somewhat underwritten. As his bum-slash-rebel of a brother, Smulders is, appropriately, something of a loose canon whose heart is nonetheless in the right place, while acting veteran Kas impresses as the siblings’ old man, a single father whose quiet, working-class dignity is conveyed in small but precisely acted gestures such as buying his son new shoelaces for the big race. 

The score, by Rutger Reinders,  supplely supports the proceedings and manages to suggest Sieger’s churning maelstrom of conflicting feelings without ever becoming downbeat or melancholy, which lends another positive edge to this touching story of first love.  

Opens: May 6 (in the Netherlands)
Production companies: Pupkin Film, NTR
Cast: Gijs Blom, Ko Zandvliet, Ton Kas, Jonas Smulders, Stijn Taverne, Myron Wouts, Ferdi Stofmeel, Rifka Lodeizen
Director: Mischa Kamp
Screenwriters: Jaap-Peter Enderle, Chris Westendorp
Producers: Pieter Kuijpers, Iris Otten, Sander van Meurs
Director of photography: Melle van Essen
Music: Rutger Reinders
Costume designer: Marion Boot, Marian van Nieuwenhuyzen
Editor: Katarina Turler
International sales: M-Appeal
No rating, 78 minutes.

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