Movie Review: North Sea, Texas
(As followers of this political blog know, I usually don’t do film reviews. Yet, sometimes when I see a movie that permanently alters me emotionally, such as North Sea, Texas, I’m moved to write one.)
Imagine if Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain had taken place in Belguim, with protagonists about 10 years younger, and you might have Flemish cult director Bavo Defurne’s North Sea, Texas. In this undeclared period, coming-of-age movie, heart-breakingly handsome Flemish actor Jelle Florizoone plays the moody and shy Pim (or Pimmy to his few intimates), a teenaged introvert with a dysfunctional home life. He’s being more or less raised on the Belgian coast by an irresponsible mother named Yvette, a frustrated, smalltime accordion player who drifts from one affair to another while Pim grows up a latchkey kid.
As a small boy, Pim is unofficially adopted by another fatherless family, this one not as dysfunctional. From the beginning, Pim feels a powerful attraction to Gino, a handsome, slightly older boy. Gino also has a sister named Sabrina, a willowy dreamer like Pim who’s reminiscent of Anne Frank. As these three children mature, the classic love triangle develops. However, it’s not until they’re all teenagers when Sabrina sneaks into Pim’s room on false pretenses (to rent the room vacated by a womanizing carnie named Zoltan) and finds drawings Pim had sketched, with Gino’s name written over and over, that she discovers where Pim’s true affections lie.
Gino’s and Sabrina’s gravely ill single mother suspects the love between the two boys and gently accepts it, being all too painfully aware of how lonely and rough life must be for Pim, a boy also growing up without a father. There are no dominant male role models in his life and Pim, called a “dreamer” several times in this bittersweet movie, spends his hours drawing and dreaming of Gino.
Gino is plainly more conflicted than Pim, who’s obviously gay and smitten by the older boy. Just before Pim’s 15th birthday, the two boys masturbate before each other in the shed, resulting in the gift to Pim of the sock into which Gino had ejaculated. Pim is a pack rat who keeps such disparate items such as a sash and cheap plastic tiara once owned by his beauty queen mother, an empty cigarette pack from the prodigal Zoltan’s trash, drawings of Gino on coasters at the Texas bar frequented by his mother and other bits of nostalgia.
Then, after the boys conduct a brief sexual relationship, Gino’s mother tells Pim that her son has been seeing a French girl named Françoise. Understandably sick with jealousy, Pim cycles to Gino’s house and sees the two kissing from his bedroom window. Out of retaliation, Pim vandalizes Gino’s beloved new motorcycle, tying around the muffler pipe the gifted sock.
Pim’s lonely life on the Belgian coast near France is exacerbated by his isolation. Zoltan comes back to rent his old room and Pim begins an infatuation with him. Zoltan, for his part, seems suspicious of Pim’s furtive looks. The carnival worker, meanwhile, has taken off with Pim’s mother, who left him a note and nothing more. Gino and Sabrina’s mother agrees to take in the heart-broken child just before her early death of kidney disease. Gino comes back from Dunkirk after having lived with Françoise and tells Pim on the beach that almost plays the part of a character that he needs to move on, start a love affair with his equally lonely sister Sabrina. The older boy says to the vulnerable Pim that he never loved him, which, of course, is the last thing he needs to hear. Pim knocks him flat on the sand before running off.
Fans of romances (which I am not but I never could resist a gay-themed romance movie) will be heartened by the ending and the conflicts leading to the denouement are legitimate and plausible ones. What’s missing from the movie is the virulent strain of homophobia that characterized Brokeback Mountain. The one thing, it seems, that Pim doesn’t have to endure is anything more than suspicious looks and gentle ribbing from the grown men who frequent Texas.
It’s a brilliantly- and delicately-acted and directed art house movie that’s been well-received and reviewed and it’d won two awards when it debuted in Rome in 2011. It’s filmed and edited in a typically European style perplexing to American audiences. It won’t win any Oscars (perhaps not even for Best Foreign Film) or break box office records but it’s not for lack of execution. North Sea, Texas deserves to be put in the pantheon of other classic coming-of-age films such as The Summer of ’42, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Breakfast Club and Japan’s Boys Love (which has a much more tragic ending).
There’s much to this film that goes unexplained but these little mysteries are presented in such an understated way, we don’t mind that we’re not told why things keep falling out of closets and pantries, why Pim recites the alphabet before engaging in certain habitual acts or why the color yellow is so prominent. We’re respected through director Defurne’s deft touch and sensitive acting by the cast by being left to our own devices why these things happen.
North Sea, Texas will be available for sale on DVD on February 19th and if you’re a fan of gay romance or even just romance in general, you could do a lot worse than spend 96 minutes of your time watching this necessarily painful yet life- and love-affirming tale of growing up on a lonely stretch of coast in an isolated part of the world.