It’s a well known fact that the 2016 Summer Blockbuster season hasn’t been a particularly rewarding one for audiences and studios alike. Some of the most anticipated movies were met with negative reviews, criticism and little fanfare. But in a sea of disappointment one movie met and even exceeded expectations.
Enter Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster, a very upbeat, colourful and often-times humorous coming-of-age drama that is loosely based on his own life growing up as a queer teen in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The anticipation for Closet Monster had been building up for quite some time since it’s TIFF 2015 debut and I am happy to report that it delivered on it’s hype.
Closet Monster wasn’t a Summer blockbuster in any way, shape, or form. Something I think it had going for it actually. It’s a Canadian independent movie from first time director Stephen Dunn and, as I said, borrows some personal elements from his childhood while avoiding being completely autobiographical. As such, it has a wealth of wit, character, and creativity.
The movie stars Connor Jessup as Oscar Madly, a local boy who witnessed a horrific hate crime against a gay student when he was just a kid (portrayed exceptionally by Jack Fulton). Picking up years later, Oscar is a high school student eagerly awaiting his college acceptance letter so that he can escape his tumultuous home life. Since his childhood Oscar has learned to repress his sexuality partly because of the incident and also because of his upbringing by his homophobic father, Peter, played perfectly by the very talented Aaron Abrams.
And while this is ripe for a very dramatic coming-of-age tale that we’ve seen time and time again, Closet Monster dares to be original, and with it’s originality come some surprisingly funny and poignant moments that elevate the story to universal relatability.
One of the bright spots in the narrative is Oscar’s pet hamster, Buffy, which is voiced by the wonderfully talented Isabella Rossellini. Yes, there’s a talking hamster in the movie and it’s awesome.
Buffy represents a part of Oscar’s repressed psyche. His conversations with Buffy are quite telling as to the fragility of his self identity. Because of the trauma of his past, Oscar isn’t quite comfortable in his own skin, and as such, isn’t even able to be open enough with himself to assert his sexuality with confidence. And this is one of the universal strengths of the character. Most teenagers, regardless of sexual orientation, race, or gender, struggle to figure out who they are. Oscar isn’t alone, no matter how much he thinks he is.
At one point in the movie, while Oscar describes his loneliness, he is reminded by his mother, Brin, sympathetically portrayed by Joanne Kelly, that his life has never been easy and perhaps, she opines, it never will be. Her advice? “If you have to walk through shit you might as well grow a thick skin”.
It’s harsh, but it’s true. The world is never an easy place. Everyday is an uphill battle and if Oscar is going to come to accept himself he’ll have to own his identity and face his inner turmoil, which of course means facing his father Peter in the process, which delivers one of the most satisfying scenes in the movie.
One of several highlights of Closet Monster is that it is a very rewarding character journey. Despite Oscar not finding the happiness he sought out or had hoped for, he does find a form of happiness and hope that things can be better. It’s a triumph of storytelling that things didn’t work out perfectly for him, but yet it still felt satisfying for Oscar and the audience.
Each time I’ve watched the movie – which has been six times so far – I felt so relieved with how Oscar’s story plays out. It’s like I went through the journey with him, carried his baggage, and finally was able to let go of it with him. This is a testament to both Connor Jessup’s superb, nuanced acting capability and Stephen Dunn’s whimsical, yet pitch perfect direction.
The movie is exceptionally casted. Each character is believable and likeable, despite their flaws. Even Peter, who is outwardly still struggling with his wife’s absence after all these years and continues to take this out on Oscar, is a character you can sympathize with. He’s human and we can see that he does love Oscar, despite his inability to put aside his own issues to show it.
The relationship that Oscar has with his mother isn’t always easy either, but thankfully the two find their way to be there for each other and mend their past when it matters. It creates some wonderfully quiet and tender moments that really give weight to the film and offer part of the cathartic relief that you feel with Oscar when he leans on his mother for some solace.
Likewise, his friendship with Gemma is very believable. And Sofia Banzhaf is a pure delight to watch on screen. She has an exuberant charm that brings a fine characterization to Oscar’s best friend. And her chemistry with Jessup is fun to watch.
Aliocha Schneider, who plays the object of Oscar’s lust, is perfectly matched to the carefree and confident Wilder. It is very believable that his bold personality is something that helps unearth Oscar’s repressed urges, allowing him to bring his deeply buried desires to the surface. Schneider also displays a wonderful screen presence that is equally as enthralling as Jessup’s, but polar opposite as well. This makes for a wonderful dynamic between the two.
This dynamic is best explored in one of the best moments in the film that takes place in Oscar’s treehouse. The interactions between Wilder and Oscar are tender, revealing, and raw. In that moment we get to peer into Oscar more deeply and feel with him everything he’s experiencing as he finally comes to an acceptance of who he is.
The net result of Stephen Dunn’s directorial debut is a wholly satisfying movie that offers a refreshing breath of creativity and energy. Closet Monster honestly achieves such a perfect balance of narrative structure that you don’t feel bogged down by what could otherwise, in less capable and mundane hands, turn into a typical run of the mill coming-of-age drama. Dunn has taken extreme care to ensure that the spirit of his script has translated to screen in all it’s whimsical glory, elevating it far beyond the typical tropes of it’s crowded genre.
Because of this strength it’s a movie that allows you to enter into it’s world and connect with it’s characters in a very real, almost palpable, way. And despite some of it’s fanciful methods of delivering it’s narrative, it never feels ungrounded in it’s representation of who these characters are. It makes for a very entertaining hour and a half that will feel every bit as contemplative as it is funny.
Closet Monster is currently available for purchase on iTunes and as of November 1st will be available to rent. I’d highly recommend checking out this indie gem.