Canada's Top Ten Review: 'Closet Monster'

Closet Monster
(Canada, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Stephen Dunn
Starring: Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams, Isabella Rossellini, Joanne Kelly, Aliocha Schneider, Sofia Banzhaf, Mary Walsh, Igor Pugdog
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

We wanted more from Stephen Dunn and now we have it. The up-and-coming Canadian director builds on the confidence he already established in short films like We Wanted More, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, and others with his feature debut Closet Monster. Closet Monster, which won the prize for Best Canadian Film at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, shows Dunn’s originality on a bigger, bolder canvas, especially for the washes of colour that fill the screen and the fully layered soundtrack that makes the film so intense. Monster is a beauty and a beast.

Closet Monster offers a coming-of-age and coming-out-of-the-closet story as teen Oscar (played by Blackbird’s Connor Jessup) wrestles with the demon gurgling in his stomach as he tries to reconcile conflicting emotions. On one level, Oscar thrives thanks to the love he feels for co-worker Wilder (Aliocha Schneider, Ville-Marie). It’s the first time he experiences this warming sensation. On the other hand, Oscar bubbles with intense shame for having this strong desire for another boy. A toxic mix of incompatible desires makes Oscar ready to explode.

Closet Monster expands upon the strong, at times crippling, current of self-hate that runs through Oscar by introducing the stigma of being gay in a small town with a powerful and violent prologue in which the young boy (played by Jack Fulton in the early scenes) witnesses some schoolyard bullies beat and sodomize a classmate with a metal rod. Oscar carries the image within him as a constant reminder as the danger he faces for coming out and/or being discovered. The image of the rod appears throughout the film as an ominous counterpoint to the pleasures Oscar finds in the male body—and the phallic nature of the rod can’t be missed as it stabs through the boy as he explores his own body. The monster within Oscar’s belly bubbles like an alien form from Videodrome. The body horror occasionally removes the viewer from the film with the jarring tonal shift it brings (it adds about one generic element too many to the film), but it also works as a fine extension of the techniques that Oscar develops as a make-up artist as he fashions prosthetics in his adolescence. It’s a violent and ultimately empowering image.

Oscar finds the strength to confront his small town’s homophobia as he grows up under the hot-bloodedly male guidance of his father, Peter (Aaron Abrams). Some of Peter’s early words of advice to Oscar about chasing girls and watching the length of his hair are a little on the nose, but the film has a firm handle on the loose/lame generalizations that people carry to straighten kids out at a young age. Similarly, the old trick with the fingernails reminds viewers of how silly the schoolyard can be, but it returns later in the film for an effective example of how Oscar internalizes the schoolyard stigma and carries it as a part of his identity he needs to shed.

Oscar doesn’t have an easy time growing up, but he finds guidance, solace, and companionship in one trusty friend: his hamster, Buffy, who acts like a guardian angel throughout Oscar’s youth. Closet Monster finds a genuine stroke of artfully comedic genius in Oscar’s conversations with Buffy by casting the great Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet) as the voice of Oscar’s hamster. Rossellini has the right comedic tint to her vocals and she offers a droll, slightly off-kilter voice of reason. Her vocal performance is a highlight of the film and it’s a great companion to her recent work in Joy as another wildly funny and scene-stealing performance.

Dunn shows ample confidence with his actors as Closet Monster draws strong performances from key members of the cast. Jessup gives a gutsy and revelatory performance as Oscar. (Gutsy not for playing gay but for tackling a role of such range and emotionally vulnerability.) He carries virtually every frame of the film (save for the opener) and lets the viewer experience the wide range of Oscar’s emotions. Abrams, similarly, strikes the right chord of menace as Peter, but he’s also effectively relatable as a product of his old-school upbringing.

Closet Monster challenges Oscar to overcome the beasts in both his home and his own body as the film puts him on an inevitable collision. Oscar’s desire to proclaim his love for Wilder runs parallel with Peter’s own gradual realization of his son’s sexuality. The film differs from other coming-out dramas by making Oscar cognizant of his sexual orientation from the outset thanks to his close relationship with his friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), and the difference with which Jessup carries himself in the company of Oscar’s various friends and family members speaks to the elements of containment and fear that hold Oscar back. Similarly, the film rejects a conventional coming-out-catharsis, as Oscar’s admission of his sexuality comes in two climatic moments: a violent (and ironic) trip into a closet and the confrontation with the monster clawing its way through his stomach.

The film loosely draws on Dunn’s experience growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and it contributes to the burgeoning crop of films coming out of Newfoundland (see: Cast No Shadow, Hold Fast) and to the bright and colourful Canuck queer canon of the Xavier Dolan age. Like Dolan’s debut I Killed My Mother, Closet Mother bracingly pops out of the screen with a vibrant, flamboyant palette of colours, and a euphoric soundtrack that makes the heart swell. Like I Killed My Mother, it also has a few too many thematic and aesthetic ideas swimming together, but the originality of vision outweighs the unevenness and inconsistencies in the material. This personal debut shows much promise.

Closet Monster screens as part of the Canada’s Top Ten festival.
It plays again at the Lightbox on Saturday, Jan. 16 with actor Connor Jessup and producer Fraser Ash in attendance.

Closet Monster opens in theatres this summer from Elevation Pictures.