by Ken Bakely
There have been many coming-of-age movies, there have been many movies about gay characters, and there have been many coming-of-age movies about gay characters. But Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster takes an entirely different approach to this format, and his unique perspective – on both visual and structural fronts – provides for a refreshing and memorable experience. He tells the story of Oscar (Connor Jessup), an eighteen-year-old prospective artist who lives at home with his father Peter (Aaron Abrams). Oscar’s mother (Joanne Kelly) left a number of years ago, and generally seems to be on better terms with her son than her ex-husband. At times, it’s not hard to see why – over the years, Peter has proven himself a difficult, cold, and dismissive man. This has made life hard for the pensive and open Oscar, whose creativity has always manifested itself in every direction, including the invention of an imaginary friend in his childhood pet, a hamster named Buffy (voice of Isabella Rossellini). She “speaks” to him, and her words function as a kind of inner monologue.
As he has approached adulthood, Oscar has realized that he is gay, but is uncomfortable addressing this. He’s forced to confront his sexuality head-on when he meets Wilder (Aliocha Schneider). They’re both part-time employees of the same shop, and they hit it off incrementally – Wilder seems to be a more confident person in every respect. This seems to be the push that is needed, a kind of growing assertion that must be acknowledged. Oscar’s confusion and inner-conflict is deep-rooted, stemming back to a fatal gay-bashing he witnessed at a cemetery when he was a little boy, but emotions like these can’t be permanent, and so a journey of realization must be embarked upon.
Closet Monster takes place in a world of oddly defined spaces, ideas, and realities. Scenes are often combined with fantastical alternatives, hints of magical realism popping in and out over the 91 minute runtime. The line between reality and fantasy is always a bit blurred. In capturing this sense of confusion, where old beliefs are upended and long-dormant secrets are brought to the forefront, Dunn crafts many deep and true feelings. His staunchly mechanical writing ( the pun of naming gay romantic leads “Oscar” and “Wilder” notwithstanding) takes a direct route to character development. Complemented with sparse, workmanlike color palettes, there’s a spiky contrast to be had when a pet rodent begins speaking or Oscar trips on hallucinogens at a party.
We want to know more, and Dunn knows how to play his viewer in just that way. His camera studies the facial expressions of each actor, drawing from reactions and predispositions. Connor Jessup is a joy to watch in this respect, as his controlled line deliveries play off knowing body language – he occupies a headspace which always refers to a distant past; those things that are accrued in childhood, ideas and feelings which one holds on to without ever really asking why. The initially awkward, tentative nature of his attraction to Aliocha Schneider’s Wilder evolves to something more nourishing in its own organic manner. Yet the brilliance of Closet Monster is that it does not operate entirely within the boundaries of the “first relationship” mold – a well-drawn character is more than simply how they interact with one person, and so a well-made movie should reflect that as well. Oscar is seen as a person, not an archetype. It’s as simple as that.
Closet Monster, isolated within its self-contained realities, is hard to shake. The film departs on a vague, open-ended note, reflecting how equivalent portions of one’s life always lead into something else. Its linear storytelling is a perfectly capable template for adventurous aesthetic excursions. Dunn is a fearless filmmaker – he tells the story he wants to tell, and he does so the way he wants to do it. You don’t like the fact that there’s a talking hamster? Tough. The movie is what it is, and won’t flatten itself out for arbitrary reasons. It’s that underlying passion and artistic fervor which drives this film to its ecstatic, inventive, emotional heights.