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TIFF 2015 Review: Closet Monster

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Coming of age stories aren’t anything new, so it’s rare when one comes along that has a fresh and original take on a common tale. Such is the case with Closet Monster, the debut feature from Canadian writer/director Stephen Dunn.

The film opens on scenes between Oscar (played as a child by Jack Fulton) having touching moments with his father (Aaron Abrams, Hannibal). They laugh and play together and his father lovingly puts Oscar to bed each night, placing dreams in his mind using a balloon. However, his idyllic childhood is disrupted when his mother unceremoniously packs up her things and leaves. His parents give him a hamster to soften the blow, the only comfort he will receive. His father becomes distant, drinking away his pain, bitter at his reality. If this wasn’t enough, around this time Oscar witnesses an awful hate crime near his school where a gay teen is paralyzed by an assault with a metal rod. Between this and also his father’s homophobia (“Why do you think I keep telling you you’ve gotta get rid of that hair buddy?”), Oscar is taught from a young age that being gay is abhorrent, something to conceal out of fear.

Fast forward ten years later. Oscar (now played by Oscar Jessup of Falling Skies) is eighteen and about to graduate high school. He is bursting at the seams to escape his home town of St. John’s Newfoundland, applying to school in New York City. And besides his friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), who is clearly enamoured with him, his only friend is still his hamster, Buffy (don’t worry, they explain the hamster’s age in a final moment that is sure to generate a chuckle). Buffy (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) in fact, even talks back to Oscar, a side of his personality that labels herself his ‘spirit animal’.

As Oscar prepares to leave St. John’s, and also his father, with whom his relationship is now fractured, he gets a job at a local hardware store. It is here that he meets Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), a new kid in town, and a young man to whom he discovers an attraction. It is then that the crime he witnessed and repressed years earlier rears its ugly head, that metal rod becoming part of his being and symbolizing his antagonizing sexual awakening as he tries to grapple with the realization that he is gay.

One of the strengths of Closet Monster is that it never paints itself in a corner. In its writing, Dunn has left his film open to genre with elements of drama, comedy and even horror and fantasy. Despite all those ingredients coming together, it never seems amiss or overdone. The different aspects of the film flow together so that nothing seems misplaced. Even the creativity of the talking hamster, which could have been an epic distraction, works to add just the right amount of whimsical humour in all the right places – mainly thanks to Rossellini’s
fantastic voice work.

Dunn, alongside cinematographer Bobby Shore (Goon), create some dreamy and beautiful sequences and always create the aspect of perspective. Young Oscar’s shots are often from a low angle to create the child’s point of view. The flashbacks are shocking and jarring amongst the older Oscar’s reality of falling for Wilder.

Connor Jessup is more than apt at portraying the angst, confusion and actual disgust that Oscar feels towards himself. The young actor, who was one of TIFF’s Rising Stars of 2012, shows that he has the chops to be a dramatic player here, demonstrating a restrained yet emotional performance of a complex character. With his ambition in writing, directing and producing he is one to watch.

So while Closet Monster‘s story might not be new, the way this story is told has enough originality and imagination to make it stand out. The movie, which was awarded the Best Canadian Feature Film at theToronto International Film Festival, is a confident debut from Stephen Dunn. By expanding his experience and repertoire, the director should be able count Closet Monster his first in a career of successes.

You can find me on Twitter.

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