words Christina Brennan
The Lost Boys (Les Paradis, 2023), directed by Belgian filmmaker Zeno Graton, is a long-awaited feature debut from a new talent who has shown promise for nearly a decade as the recipient of awards from the Namur Film Festival and the Brussels Short Film Festival. Whatever preconceptions the opening shots of The Lost Boys might trigger – scenes of an austere correctional facility with monotonous cells and security cameras – this debut, anchored by compelling performances from two lead actors, was undoubtedly one of the more subtle, moving films of the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival.
Based on a screenplay that Graton penned with co-writer Clara Bourreau, the film is set in a juvenile detention centre and delicately maps out the long, drawn-out weeks of sentence served by a 17-year-old inmate, Joe (played with understated restraint by Khalil Ben Gharbia). Joe is torn between keeping his head down, with the hope of a release date, and escaping the stifling monotony of the institution. He escapes from the institution to spend the day in a games arcade, much to the despair of social workers forced to inform the courts of his regular escapades. Living very much in his own head, by the time he meets the new brooding, tattooed inmate, William (Julien De Saint Jean), and they share a roll-up in their snatched moment of leisure time, Joe has more on his mind than his life after release.
Joe is intrigued by his newcomer, who observes all those around him with intense, striking eyes. William adorns his bare cell walls with his tattoo designs of whirling snakes and dragons with obvious symbolism for the two adolescents. ‘The Dragon of the North’, as William describes one of the subjects of these sketches: ‘The gods were afraid of its power and tossed it into the sea. So people would forget about it. But the serpent grew in the sea. It grew so big that it wrapped itself around the world to protect us’. Comforting and yet dangerous, their unspoken, passionate desire for each other soon manifests itself into a secret relationship.
Julian De Saint Jean makes for a memorable love interest, conveying with Gharbia the blossoming love that turns their grey, dreary world inside out. Rather than presenting a dramatic love story, the film follows Joe’s structured institutional life (which is as much about rehabilitation as punishment) and how he wrestles with the prospect of post-prison life. A regular day inside involves strict lights-out at a not-too-late hour, classes including woodwork, medication, and scheduled cross-country on the facility’s grounds. As you might expect, Graton’s realist style is stripped down to match the institutional setting and surroundings. Yet he still catches the small, sensual details that invoke the spark of shared connection. The soundtrack is evocative and a shared interest that brings the pair closer together despite their routine and separation. After lights out, they play music to each other through the walls separating them, longing for the connection and pressing their bodies to the side of the cell that will bring them closer to each other. With each element of the film, Graton’s filmmaking is imbued with a precision that makes it clear that The Lost Boys is a labour of love, with Graton attentive to the framing and content of each shot.
Occasionally, the pacing of sequences gets the better of the film – his penchant to move between calm, restrained dialogue to passionate love scenes can diminish the subtlety of the rest of his approach – but for the most part, The Lost Boys is attuned to the story of its two protagonists. Graton’s debut filmmaking is assured, and you can feel his commitment to the love story at the centre of his film. Regardless of Julian De Saint Jean’s striking performance, The Lost Boys is Khalil Ben Gharbia’s show. With a melancholy air and presence, Gharbia fleshes out a character who is slowly detaching from his life at the same time that he is falling in love. Perhaps the character’s most decisive scene – coming in the film’s final sequences – features a snap, in-the-moment decision that will risk the prospect of his release. At various points across this scene, and across the film as a whole, Gharbia is able to convey pain and introspection with sparks of playfulness and fun. Played with restraint and an understated appeal, Gharbia roots the film’s hero, Jow, and therefore, the rest of The Lost Boys, in a memorable dignity. Overall, The Lost Boys is a memorable study of grief and loneliness in an unexpected setting, filtered through the maturing sensibility of a talented director who is one to watch.
UK & Ireland theatrical & digital release date 15th December 2023