Stashed away at the centre of the coming-of-age drama North Sea Texas, the first feature from Belgian artist and photographer Bavo Defurne, is a shoebox filled to its brim with Proustian things: a jigsaw piece, a chocolate wrapper, a sticky piece of rag. The film around it often looks to have been compiled in this way, too: as a collection of touchstones that attempt to summon up what it is to be a sexually confused kid in a community where gender roles are otherwise strictly defined. Pim - played by Ben van den Heuvel as a boy, and by Jelle Florizoone as a teenager - is a tousle-haired blond doodler growing up in a coastal town under the distracted eye of his faded, erstwhile beauty queen mother. With the latter romancing a blokeish, greasy-haired mechanic, Pim prefers to spend his days with the neighbours, whose daughter he's assumed to be taking up with - when actually he's riding off for semi-regular petting sessions with her bike enthusiast brother.
Somebody's memories, whether those of Defurne or André Sollie, the author of the book from which the film is adapted, begin to flood the screen. Sleeping in a tent pitched on the dunes, in close proximity to the object of one's affections; being told said object has a lady friend, each additional biographical detail ("Françoise. She has white sandals") providing an extra rotation of the knife; the return to town of an oft-shirtless carny with a very specific shaving ritual. In a series of acclaimed short films, Defurne has developed a facility with colour and light which never quite strays into Ozon-ish or Almodóvarian kitsch (he may just be too Belgian for that), though he pulls off a bold effect with wardrobe limited to the colours yellow and blue, the better to stand out in a generally unprepossessing environment.
His narrative composition remains rather less bold, and in many ways altogether familiar: this is the old tale of unrequited yearning - if not for a person, then for headier climes (as is the case with Pim's mother Yvette), somewhere less provincial (the objects of lust who pass through), anywhere but here. Defurne isn't entirely adrift with his performers: he coaxes a nicely robust, characterful turn from Eva van der Gucht as the accordion-touting Yvette, and if the two Pims are perhaps just a bit too reticent and quietly sensitive for the film's greater good, they work towards some small understanding of a personality in the process of being shaped, if not defined, by a series of rejections and hard knocks.
You can only admire the way Defurne holds out for (and gets) the mood there is to be generated from mildly depressed characters in a mildly depressed setting not getting what they want from life, even if it makes the film far from an easy sell. As suggested by the scene which finds the mother slumped in front of a particular light-entertainment programme with a particular brand of vodka, its mooning does feel specific to the mooner, and his own personal shoebox of memories: it's certainly a promising debut, delicate and keenly remembered, but in order for this love story to really, fully mean something, I suspect you may well need to have been there or thereabouts.
North Sea Texas opens in selected cinemas from Friday.