Nothing rips a heart to shreds like a movie about children in pain, in jeopardy, in danger of having their bright, open futures stamped out. Close, the emotionally rich and devastating second feature by Belgian director Lukas Dhont, is in theaters and streaming now. Check out this Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner and Oscar Best International Feature nominee on AppleTV and when you’re done, move on to these four other classic films about children that range from heartwarming to heartbreaking—often both at the same time. Have tissues handy.
Close, directed by Lukas Dhont (2022)
13-year-old best friends Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) spend their summer days riding bikes, battling imaginary armies, roaming the fields where Léo’s family farms flowers. Their nights are spent whispering stories in the dark—“imagine you’re a baby duckling…”—falling asleep side by side, limbs entwined. The dreamy cinematography captures this idyllic moment as the classic “hour of splendour in the grass,” before the boys return to school and a pre-teen mean girl asks the fateful question: Are you two together? As in, Are you a couple? Léo shuts her down, but the damage is done, those four words functioning as Eve’s apple, stripping the friendship of its innocence and leaving the boys suddenly naked and self conscious. In response, Léo tries on a more obviously masculine persona, kicking a soccer ball and joking around with other boys at recess, joining a hockey team, while Rémi reels, hurt and unclear of how to move forward. No spoilers, but something happens that abruptly turns Close into a different kind of film. The twist is brutal and jarring, but the perfection of the film’s first act and its profound dive into the emotional depths of this childhood bond is rare and profound.
Stream on Apple TV
Divines, directed by Houda Benyamina (2016)
Director Benyamina’s Caméra d’Or-winning debut is a scrappy coming-of-age thriller about two teenage girls, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), growing up in low-income housing project outside of Paris. Both are obsessed with making “money, money, money.” Aware that options are limited for kids from their hood—a teacher hopefully suggests they might become receptionists one day—they shoplift and eventually start dealing drugs for Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), a local gangster. The film reverses expected gender roles in creating two ballsy girls with dreams of making the big bucks, no matter what it takes.
Stream on Netflix
Au Revoir Les Enfants, directed by Louis Malle (1987)
Critically lauded and generally adored, writer, director, and producer Malle’s devastating film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won seven Césars, including Best Film and Best Director. The largely autobiographical feature was based on Malle’s childhood experiences at a Catholic boarding school during the German occupation of France in 1943. In the film, a lonely boy named Julien (Gaspard Manesse) befriends a new student, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejto), he later learns is one of three Jewish boys being hidden at the school by Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), a brave and sympathetic priest determined to protect the boys from the Nazis.
Stream on HBOMax
The Chorus, directed by Christophe Barratier (2004)
This Oscar-nominated tearjerker is a remake of the 1945 film A Cage of Nightingales about a music teacher at a boarding school for troubled boys orphaned during WWII who breaks through to the students when he creates a choir with and for them. While some criticized the film for being predictable, the soaring soundtrack (the song “Look to Your Path” was also nominated for an Oscar) and sweet story of broken children living in a harsh, authoritarian system who are touched—and changed—by music is the kind of heartwarming story that gets the tear ducts flowing.
Buy on Amazon
The 400 Blows, directed by François Truffaut (1959)
Any list of touching French films about children must include Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical debut, one of the defining films of the New Wave. With great energy and style, Truffaut tells the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a rebellious preteen who drives his parents crazy by skipping school, lying, stealing, and repeatedly running away from home. Antoine’s frustration and sense of being misunderstood is captured with great honesty and has touched generations. Truffaut went on to make four other films about Antoine as he grew up and navigated the tricky waters of adulthood, but the first remained dearest to fans. Akira Kurosawa famously called it “one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen.”
Stream on HBOMax
Andrea Meyer has written creative treatments for commercial directors, a sex & the movies column for IFC, and a horror screenplay for MGM. Her first novel, Room for Love (St. Martin’s Press) is a romantic comedy based on an article she wrote for the New York Post, for which she pretended to look for a roommate as a ploy to meet men. A long-time film and entertainment journalist and former indieWIRE editor, Andrea has interviewed more actors and directors than she can remember. Her articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Elle, Glamour, Variety, Time Out NY, and the Boston Globe.