Rome 2011: North Sea Texas

Pim (an understated performance by ballet dancer-in-training Jelle Florizoone) is a quiet kid who enjoys spending hours drawing and keeps all his secrets, even those that are a little naughty, in a shoebox hidden in his closet. When he was a child he liked wearing his absent ex-beauty queen mother's tiara and pretending to be a great lady from the past. His first crush was an older and handsome gypsy who was also his mother's lover and, at 15, he's discovering sex and is madly in love with rebellious biker Gino (punk rock singer Mathias Vergels), the boy next door.

Gino has problems of his own: a very ill mother, a sister (incredibly mature 16-year-old first timer Nina Marie Kortekaas) who is growing up too fast, and the fear of being found out fooling around with another boy. When Gino decides that it's time to grow up and start dating girls, little Pim's whole world crumbles, at least until his old crush comes back into his and his mother's life…but was Gino really using Pim only for sex? It will take tragedy for both of them to truly grow up, and finally realize what they feel for each other.

Based on a hit young adult novel by Belgian author André Sollie, North Sea Texas is Bavo Defurne's feature film debut, after years of making internationally successful LGBT-themed short films. The movie was presented at the International Rome Film Festival in a section – Alice in the City – dedicated to movies targeted towards a younger audience, and ended up being one of the most talked-about films of the festival, winning the main prize in its category and immediately finding an Italian distributor after the first press screening.

The success of this slow-paced, intimate little movie lies in the fine details: there's grace and incredible love in the way Defurne builds up the small world in which his characters move, and all that grace, all that affection for each and every character, even those who are superficially "bad," comes through the screen and affects the audience. The timeless quality of the setting – a general "past" that is not really from a specific era but is the memory of a universal childhood we all share (the screenplay calls it "Our youth, some decades ago") – helps envelop the viewer in a surprising sensation of warmth, even when the movie deals with loneliness and unrequited feelings. Sudden bursts of bright color have the same effect, of significant details suddenly emerging in our memory from dreams that have been long forgotten.

It's also a movie about love and, as Defurne said when accepting his award, it's easy to like a movie about love, but there's more than that. It's not only delicate and it's not only whimsical, the movie is thoroughly real. It doesn't shy away from the most trivial aspects of puberty; it never tries to give an idyllic view of adolescence and manages to be quite mean when dealing with the difficult relationship between Pim and his mother (the best exchange of the movie is when Mom says, "Normal boys your age hang out with friends," to which Pim replies, "Normal women your age don't spend their nights out"). There's truth in the whimsy, and the narrative is perfectly balanced between a grounded reality and the world seen through the eyes of a romantic (one of the film's leit-motifs is the line "Pim is a dreamer").

There's truth and there's tragedy. Or rather, tragedies, of very different kinds. The tragedy of a longing that can never be fulfilled, that of Gino's sister for Pim, which can be turned into another sort of affection. The tragedy of fear of the outside world. And real, palpable tragedy that can only be overcome through growing up. When the world of grown-ups clashes with the expectations of children and these characters enter adulthood, the movie is at its most poignant. This adulthood can only be reached through the silent acceptance of both mothers, and it's a happy ending both touching and hopeful as it comes from loss and solitude, but never regret. What is pure and strong wins in the end. Defurne, whose filmmaking is summarized in his words, "I don’t want to show people what they see when they look out their windows, I want to show what they can see when they close their eyes," gladly stepped out of his comfort zone of doomed gay romances to demonstrate "that the life that wasn't possible for the boys from Brokeback Mountain is not beyond everybody's reach."

Moments of sadness, sometimes naive and sometimes bitter, and moments of innocent happiness are the winning combination of this movie. It's no wonder that it charmed a jury of kids aged 13 to 18. The movie gives hope without sentimentality and delivers truth without grittiness. It's something that kids can relate to and that adults will fondly remember from years gone by, years of first crushes and desires, little secrets and family conflict. Bavo Defurne stole a little from all our childhoods, and made something special and beautiful with all our memories.