I first got acquainted with the cinematic beauty that is Closet Monster at last year’s BFI London Film Festival where I also had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely and extremely promising creative force behind it – Canadian filmmaker Stephen Dunn. Watching this striking feature debut for a second time a year later has only reinforced my admiration for a piece of filmmaking that couldn’t be more personal, original and powerfully universal.
A native of St John’s in the island of Newfoundland off Canada’s Atlantic coast, Stephen Dunn has in fact crafted an instant classic of queer cinema that takes the coming-of-age and coming-out tale, rejuvenates it and delivers a film that unapologetically puts the elephant in the room in its very title. Yet, this blunt declaration of intent isn’t just your typical epiphany of sexual identity but rather a thematic allegory bound to the plot point that jump-starts the story.
A rapid series of sequences, partly edited in dreamy montage fashion, introduce us to Oscar (Jack Fulton), a cute kid who has a seemingly average life in Canadian suburbia with his parents. His father (Aaron Abrams) is the one more actively involved with the boy as we see them play vampire slayer and staked vampire. Oscar is a huge fan of the TV series Buffy and runs around with the wooden stake his dad carved for him.
This idyllic portrait doesn’t last long though as Oscar’s parents can’t stop fighting and their nasty confrontations wind up in divorce. When his mom (Joanne Kelly) leaves them, the heart-broken boy can at least count on the company and friendship of his little pet hamster, aptly named Buffy. Oscar’s imagination and the inevitable hardships of his family’s situation have led the boy to believe the little animal speaks to him. Voiced by legendary actress Isabella Rossellini, Buffy is an adorable comic relief and inevitably a projection of Oscar’s personality.
One day at school a boy is violently assaulted by a bunch of bullies for allegedly being gay and gets raped with a metal rod. Oscar witnesses the horrible crime and when his dad explains what happened, he advises his son to finally cut his hair short to avoid “any dangerous misunderstandings”. Oscar is affected by such remark and as the crime keeps haunting him whilst growing up, he always makes sure to keep “his masculinity” in check.
By his own admission, filmmaker Stephen Dunn has drawn inspiration from his own life experience whilst writing Closet Monster and not just when it comes to endearing details like his actual, undeniable love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A young gay man was actually impaled with a metal rod in the graveyard behind his school and the despicable event, which caught the attention of the entire province, shook him up to the core. Up until then, Dunn recalls to have been growing up rather comfortable in his own skin, oblivious to sexual preferences, albeit showing undeniable signs that one day he would’ve grown into a fabulous young gay man.
However, even if at the time he didn’t know he was gay, that horrible hate crime pushed Dunn to suppress his feminine side and conceal his inner self until he was 18. The struggle to survive whilst searching for identity as a young gay man eventually led him to conceive this film – nothing beats exorcising your inner demons with a good old artistic catharsis and it shows. Closet Monster isn’t just an assured debut from yet another promising young filmmaker out of the myriad of hopeful artists out there – this is actually the real deal. Dunn has got personality and style and a special sensibility when it comes to observe his characters and the world they gravitate in.
With a smooth edit trick, the story flashes forward to a teen Oscar (Connor Jessup) close to graduating high school and applying for college in New York where he hopes to move with his best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf). Given his precocious imagination and creativity, our now young adult protagonist dreams of a makeup artist career in the entertainment industry, relying on Gemma’s help as the model for his portfolio.
Oscar is also in clear questioning mode about his sexuality and he’s still haunted by nightmares of that terrible homophobic accident, which prevents him from being able to loosen up. His father’s macho attitude and assumption about Oscar and Gemma being a couple only makes things worse and truth is the man is obsessively hung up on his ex wife and how she abandoned them to start a family with someone else. His petty reactions keep a constant, underlying tension at home that weigh on Oscar, especially in such a delicate, formative moment in his life.
The ineluctable moment of abandonment to self-awareness comes when Cupid strikes and there’s nothing Oscar can do about it. As he starts working a boring summer job at a big home improvement store, he meets Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), a dreamy and charismatic boy from Montreal who effortlessly oozes coolness and whose friendly demeanour, combined with ambiguously flirty signals, lead our naïve and confused Oscar into the infamously torturous territory of lusting after an impossible crush.
Even Buffy immediately senses something different in Oscar’s energy, suggesting he must’ve fallen in love – and yes, Buffy still “speaks” to him and will have a symbolic key role in this young man’s evolution with a heart-wrenching dose of magic realism. Oscar in fact is bound to confront the “closet monster” and finally affirm his true self, even if it means confronting the demons of his past trauma and of his ongoing family drama once and for all.
It’s no surprise to learn that the film was shot on 35mm film as the gorgeous vintage look Dunn and his director of photography Bobby Shore have achieved is reminiscent of the suburbia portrayed in early Tim Burton’s cinema, mixed with the dreamy and dark undertones of more recent indies like Donnie Darko. Yet none of this would matter if Dunn hadn’t crafted such an accomplished and nuanced screenplay and hadn’t cast the right people to bring his inspired vision to life.
No moment in fact is ever wasted in Closet Monster’s narrative and although the story isn’t heavy on plot, those key moments that propel the story forward never feel contrived and serve a script that’s mostly an intimate character’s study, delving into a young man’s psyche and his need for catharsis. The cast is magnificent throughout but Aaron Abrams deserves a special mention for effortlessly embodying Oscar’s dad as the lovable boozy looser he is.
The spotlight is of course on Canadian wonder boy Connor Jessup who steals the show as our protagonist. Bursting into the scene with his role in the Spielberg-produced sci-fi drama Falling Skies for 5 seasons (2011-2015), Jessup has made another great impression last year on season 2 of ABC’s anthology series American Crime (where he’ll return this year) but also in some other indie films like 2012’s Blackbird. Jessup, however, isn’t just a gifted young actor, but also a promising filmmaker, whose latest wonderful short film, Boy, screened at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.
It would’ve been easy to fall into the whole teen angst cliché performance but Jessup simply nails Oscar’s innocence and inner torment with a subtlety and sensibility that are bound to win you over from his first appearance on screen. Although I was lucky to never witness and get traumatised by a hate crime, I’ve dealt with my own kind of closet monster and seeing Jessup’s nuanced portrayal of a boy aching for identity through bottled up sexual repression, desire and frustration was a goosebumps-inducing flashback to my own 20s.