CLOSET MONSTER: The Queer Film You Need To See

If you didn’t think a hamster voiced by Isabella Rossellini could make you cry, think again.

In Closet Monster, the debut feature film by writer and director Stephen Dunn, reality seamlessly melds with surrealism to share the story of a boy struggling to accept who he was, who he is, and who he always has been. The boy is Oscar, and the film follows him through two phases in his life, both of which profoundly impact his perceptions surrounding his sexuality and identity.

Crime and Punishment

Closet Monster is different from the start. It poignantly opens with a loving exchange between a young Oscar (Jack Fulton) and his father (Aaron Abrams) going through their bedtime ritual. This opening is significant for several reasons, but it is primarily indicative of the sweet and playful nature of the relationship they share – ultimately adding to the devastation when it changes.

At this young age, Oscar witnesses a homophobic hate crime against a young man and, in turn, comes to internalize the hate from which it stems. In pivotal contrast with the initial scene, we come to see a different side of his father following the crime. During a heart-wrenching and incipient conversation between the two of them, Oscar asks him why the people hurt the boy, to which his father plainly responds, “because he’s gay.” This calloused and unfeeling response reverberates through Oscar’s life as he begins to correlate the hate crime with himself.

CLOSET MONSTER: The Queer Film You Need To See
source: Elevation Pictures

In the violent act he witnesses, a metal rod is used to harm the victim. This rod and other metal objects become adopted symbols of the homophobia he internalizes – becoming a visceral and embryonic illustration of the self-loathing he feels. These metal objects, particularly the rod, are extremely effective motifs that recur throughout the film, but the less you know about how and where they show up, the better.

Teenage Wasteland

The film then fluidly moves on to Oscar’s teenage years (exquisitely played by Connor Jessup) as he attends high school, gets a job at a hardware store (no doubt in a deliberate move by Dunn in relation to the metal object motif), and develops a crush on a coworker named Wilder. This forces him to confront his sexuality, though his struggle to accept it is obstructed by the trauma he witnessed when he was younger and fueled by his father’s attempt to enforce a strict heteronormative view of masculinity.

I am tempted to classify Closet Monster as a coming-of-age story but, despite being exactly that, it feels like so much more. Coming-of-age films are ubiquitous, frequently inflamed by surface-level melodrama or void of emotion altogether (can you tell that I am not terribly fond of the genre?). This film could have easily become a banal addition to the pile of these trope-ridden tales, but Closet Monster instead arrives as a dazzling, panoramic, and deeply personal film that, so far, has made my top 5 films of the year.

CLOSET MONSTER: The Queer Film You Need To See
source: Elevation Pictures

This film is saturated metaphoric symbology and Bunuelian surrealism – a quality that I hope draws you in as it did for me. But instead of valorizing the difference between reality and imagination, Dunn allows Oscar’s fanciful and cataclysmic world to coalesce into a beautiful fusion of the physical and the feigned. As a viewer, you are not prompted to decipher between the two, and thus, I never questioned the surrealist elements because Oscar didn’t either (did I mention that the hamster made me cry?).

Still, with the strength of this heartfelt, whimsical, and often deeply funny material in hand, one of the film’s greatest assets is still Connor Jessup. With Falling Skies, American Crime, and other work under his belt, he is at the top of my list of young actors to look out for. Here, he wholeheartedly embodies his character and accesses the vast range of emotions it demands. I cannot imagine anyone else playing Oscar.

An Intimate Portrait

Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster is a triumph of visceral honesty. It is a story that vulnerably explores the gravity of self-hatred, and further, of any internalized falsehoods we may carry with us.

It is rare for a single film to make me laugh, cheer, and cry (even simultaneously at one point, though I implore you not to let that frightening image sway you), but this film kindled and stirred just about every emotional reaction I have within me. Needless to say, it fluently balances drama and humor, but the very essence within its message is one of defiant and radical hope.

Closet Monster is ferociously grandiose at times and exquisitely delicate in others; the balance of which coalesces into a lush, chimerical, and compassionate exposition on what it means to face adversity and accept yourself despite it.

What did you think of Closet Monster? Are you drawn to coming-of-age stories? Let us know your thoughts below.

Closet Monster emerges from TIFF after deservedly winning Best Canadian Feature Film, and will be out in limited release worldwide in Spring 2017. For all international release dates, click here.

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Posted by Contributor