The Lost Boys: a kind and tender gay love story

Two boys strike up a passionate relationship in a juvenile detention centre in this touching French drama that offers an unusually generous depiction of vulnerable teens.

Julien De Saint Jean and Khalil Ben Gharbia as William and Joe in The Lost Boys (2023)Kris Dewitte

Passion stirs behind bars in this touching gay love story from Belgian director Zeno Graton, as an intimate relationship develops between Joe (Khalil Gharbia), days away from leaving a juvenile detention centre, and William (Julien de Saint Jean), who is just starting his stint. A refreshing flipside to the violent, often terrifying worlds of similar facilities shown in films such as Scum (1979) and Sleepers (1996), The Lost Boys depicts an institution where the staff do their best and the boys offer each other support and validation.

The film’s critique is aimed not at the facility itself, but at the society that put these vulnerable boys there. Graton has no interest in clichéd representations of ‘toxic masculinity’. His previous short film Jay Amongst Men (2015) depicted a boy compelled to conform to traditional masculine tropes, but in The Lost Boys his characters are kind, tender and brimming with potential when given the chance.

Graton, who like Gharbia has Tunisian heritage, was partly motivated to tell this story having witnessed the experiences of his cousin, who was also incarcerated as a teenager for minor offences (the film does not explicitly mention institutional racism, for it is self-evident). The Lost Boys references other French movies that explore life in prison. In the opening sequence, when Joe runs away, he heads straight for the sea, echoing Antoine Doinel’s bid for freedom at the end of The 400 Blows (1959). A moving exchange between the two boys, separated by a wall, plays like a PG-rated reimagining of the erotic scenes of Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950).

While most of the actors playing the inmates are clearly older than the teenagers they are depicting, all impress at capturing the messiness and unpredictability of male youth. A moment when one of the boys, Yanis, is punished by having his visiting privileges revoked is beautifully played by newcomer Nlandu Lubansu, his face crumpling from stroppy defiance to quiet despair. While the romance between Joe and William is the focus of the film, the homosocial relationships of the boys are just as interesting and affirming. 

However the constant references to life being frozen in time, stuck in stasis, including a twice-repeated tale about fish trapped in ice, grow clumsy. Its French title, Le Paradis, explained in the film through a story of an isolated world, extends the metaphor yet further. But its universally strong performances, an unusually generous depiction of vulnerable boys and the touching gay love story at its heart easily outweigh The Lost Boys’ minor flaws.

The Lost Boys arrives in UK cinemas on 15 December.