The most radical part about North Sea Texas may well be its decision to utterly eschew the idea that a queer coming-of-age narrative must hinge on the fear of outing. Early on in director Bavo Defurne’s film, when Yvette (Eva Van der Gucht) walks in on her young son, Pim (Ben Van den Heuvel), donning a tiara and fantasizing about beauty-contest domination, she assures him that she “isn’t mad”—and that’s the extent to which the story, set in a small town on the Belgian coast in the 1950s, concerns itself with social perceptions of homosexuality. Instead, this subdued and introspective film focuses on the small moments of growth and understanding between characters.
The narrative centers on Pim (played when he’s older by Jelle Florizoone), a deeply introverted teen who lives with his benignly neglectful mother and yearns for the affections of Gino (Mathias Vergels), a slightly older friend of the family. Those affections are returned in the form of furtive trysts between the two boys until Gino runs off with a Francophone girl across the border separating Belgium’s French and Flemish-speaking regions, leaving Pim alone and suffocating in their small town. As in his countryman Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead, Defurne uses the cultural division of his homeland as analogy for a masculine identity crisis, as Pim waits for Gino to return both to Flanders and by his side.
North Sea Texas creates a hermetic world that borders on magical realism, complete with wacky types—bands of accordion players, gypsy carnies with handlebar mustaches—who freely drop in and out of the narrative. At times, the film recalls Neil Jordan’s Patrick McCabe adaptations in its highly stylized use of color and lighting and its profusion of retro Americana kitsch. Anton Mertens’s camera work enhances these aesthetic choices; his carefully lit compositions make the physical components of the story’s sleepy town seem both fantastical and familiar, as if from a dream. The lush visuals bring the film to life and the sense of insularity created by the mise-en-scène provides an effective mirror of the film’s highly reserved main character, reflecting both the imaginary world that he’s created in his mind (“Pim’s a dreamer,” Gino’s sister intones) and his desire to reach outside of his restrictive surroundings.
However, while the film succeeds in creating a dense atmospheric feel and avoids generic tropes, it does so somewhat at the neglect of its characters (who generally remain static) and narrative (which slips into some unnecessary and sappy terrain). Florizoone is an adept performer, but Pim is one-note, moping through the narrative without ever being allowed catharsis or a true moment of rupture of any kind. While the film succeeds in creating a beautiful setting and portends of things to come from Defurne, it ultimately fails to give life to its main character—and no tale of pent-up teenage frustration should be as subdued and pretty as this.