A new week can mean only one thing: it’s time to visit country number two on this virtual cinematic jaunt around Europe of ours. Last week we started in Germany with war-time drama The Counterfeiters, and this week we head west to Belgium. Whilst not prolific in well-known films, Belgium had success with the violent crime-comedy Man Bites Dog around 20 years ago, and has seen a slight surge in recent years, boasting the Dardenne brothers and with releases such as Mr. Nobody and Bullhead. The latter of these two was shown in UK arthouse cinemas earlier this year.
But it’s to the ambiguously-named North Sea, Texas that we turn to, though not merely arbitrarily so. There’s a bit of uncertainty as to whether the comma belongs in the title – with IMDB appearing to think otherwise – though regardless of which way it falls, it’s a poor title that says little about the film. But this seemingly unimportant change reflects the value of the film as a whole: nothing fancy overall, but lacking in the finer details that may make it sufficiently gratifying.
That’s not to say that North Sea, Texas is poor – that’s far from the case. But before getting into all that, let me explain the premise. The method in the madness behind the film’s selection is concerned with the fact that this is a coming-of-age gay story between two teenagers. One of them is our protagonist, Pim, and it’s his troubles and desires that we’re most deeply connected with throughout.
The very opening scenes, playing in and around the credits, are unusual in that they show Pim as a small child running into the arms of an older man – an unusual shot if this is to be a somewhat sexual tale (which it is). These are followed by some minutes of his early years, setting up the character as he prances around his room. This feminine experimentation and exploration of his identity not only gives us an insight into what an alternative universe’s gay King Joffrey might do in his spare time, but also lets us know that self-discovery has already arrived for Pim.
This is reinforced further as, in one of the very first scenes where he’s now a 14-year-old opposite the 17-year-old object of his affections Gino, the two embark on a mutual, but separate, activity enjoyed by teenagers together. Already we’re aware that there’s no holding back in this story as it gallops along at quite a pace. We also know that the yearnings that they evidently both have are both about to be taken care of in a more mutual manner, as their ‘relationship’ goes to the next step. So if it’s not about the build-up to this moment (the anxiety, the fear that it will never happen), what, then, is it all about?
This question is the crux of this and every other film, of course, but it’s a particularly big issue here. And, due to some small failings in the film, it’s one which I fear I can’t with any certainty answer. This rushed beginning suggests – and in fact pretty much decrees – that it’s not about burgeoning young love, and certainly not about ‘coming out’ in this context. The most obvious answer, given the rest of the film, is that it’s about the relationship of these two boys in every sense.
But this answer is as problematic as the rest of the several alternatives available to us. Though there are neat sub-plots involving the one-sided relationship struck up between Pim and Gino’s sister, the look-the-other-way parenting styles of both mothers, and indeed the lack of family structure and role-models for Pim, these don’t really come together as one or work as a better answer to our initial question.
The principal reason that the two boys’ relationship does not fit either is because the second half of the film feels unsuitably different from the first. It’s not that they are so disconnected that they could not possibly fit together, but the move does seem somewhat disjointed and forced. What this split between the first half of the film and the second does allow us to explore, however, is the idea of enjoyment versus the idea of quality when watching a film.
Suddenly it feels like the film is striving for something a little deeper and less comfortable, but with less success. It has to be said that the first half is a stress-free watch in pretty much every sense, but it’s uncommon for two young gay guys to have it so easy – at least externally – for so much of a film (and certainly so in real life).
North Sea, Texas is ultimately a decent film but has issues, the primary one being that it’s too frightened to deal with those of sexuality and identity. It remains comfortable and safe for too long and then strives to address these problems too late in the day. However, it’s certainly not without merit, and this Belgian tale of homosexual adolescence will certainly hit the spot for some.