If there’s anybody close to obtaining the status of being the poster boy for French LGBT cinema right now, actor Félix Maritaud could be it. After a supporting turn in Robin Campillo’s exquisite ensemble piece 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), he’s taken a meatier supporting role in another major Cannes selection (Yann Gonzalez’ gay porn giallo Knife + Heart), and taken the lead role in the widely acclaimed Sauvage. So if director Christophe Charrier’s Boys (Jonas) feels instantly familiar to arthouse audiences, it’s largely due to a lead actor who gravitates towards intense character studies in this vein.
Boys, inexplicably retitled from its original French title Jonas, isn’t quite as unflinching in its subject matter as the other movies outlined above, and is far more attuned to a melodramatic sensibility in comparison. Which isn’t to suggest it feels comparatively like a soap opera – this is just a more mainstream friendly variant on the hard hitting theme of gay trauma, that overcomes its small screen origins to feel as worthy of your time as any of the other films Maritaud has made his name starring in.
The film unfolds over two separate time frames; in 1997, shortly after Princess Diana’s death, Jonas is 15 years old (and here played by Nicolas Bauwens) and about to start a new year of high school. There, he meets a new pupil, Nathan (Tommy Lee Baïk), and what follows is what you’d expect; he realises his sexuality, starts a secret relationship and overcomes the adversity of his peers. In a separate timeline, set eighteen years later, Nathan is in his early thirties and falling into a self destructive spiral. He repeatedly cheats on his boyfriend, and gets into fights at a local gay club for no apparent reason. Then, a chance meeting with a peripheral figure from his past sets his whole world back into focus – and reminds him of the trauma that has led to this cycle of harmful behaviour in the first place.
Boys (Jonas) is Charrier’s second TV movie, and I suspect that it’s only a matter of time before somebody gives him money to make his big screen debut. His film may tell a fairly melodramatic story as it progresses, but it’s easily forgivable due to being grounded within a heartfelt character study – one that is all the more effective due to the perfectly pitched performances he manages to get from the entire ensemble. They all feel down to earth, if not fully naturalistic, and help embed an increasingly heightened cautionary tale within something much more tangible.
I may have singled out Félix Maritaud above, but it’s actually the flashbacks to his teenage years that are given much more screen time. His performance is comparatively extroverted when placed next to that of Nicolas Bauwens, playing the younger iteration of the character; there’s an understated awkwardness to his performance that’s effective in illustrating how he first became aware of his sexuality. Other films would further accentuate bumbling character traits in these moments – Christophe Charrier plays the social anxieties down, even when the character is confronted by homophobic bullies. It helps the coming out trope feel more realistic, refusing to overly dramatise for storytelling effect, and once again, this decision grounds the film before the later plot developments kick in.
Boys (Jonas) may be a TV movie, but it still suggests that its writer/director has a bright future ahead of him on the big screen.