Closet Monster picks its moments well. In the prelude to the main story, when protagonist Oscar Madly (Jack Fulton) is only about 10 years old, he witnesses older boys murder their rumoured-to-be-gay peer, his parents separate, and he develops the ability to converse with his pet hamster, who acts as a kind of emotional crutch. Not only do these three factors shape Oscar’s young adult life – which comprises the main story – they seem like they’re from three different films. Not here.
St. John’s, Canada’s Stephen Dunn writes and directs with confidence. He marries surrealism with a typically structured coming of age story in a way that elevates Closet Monster out of and away from the ordinary movie pool from which it so clearly derives. It takes full flight as Dunn successfully weaves each factor together.
In the present, Oscar (now played by Connor Jessup) lives only with his father Peter (Aaron Abrams). Peter used to seem like the fun parent. The problem is he’s remained that way to detrimental effect. He’s emotionally stunted. He flies off the handle. He’s more like a confused teenager than Oscar himself. He also masks his homophobia. The night after boy-Oscar sees the murder, he describes it to his father in detail. We see flashes of it. The murderers put a metal rod up the victim’s bottom. Why did they do that, Oscar asks – he’s not yet at the age where sexual orientation has entered his mind. His father explains it’s probably because the victim was gay. He then performs a touching night time ritual of “filling his son’s head with dreams,” dreams scary enough to be interesting, but not so scary Oscar will come wake him up.
Present Oscar’s relationship with his father grows strained. Not only does he feel very uncomfortable when his father brings girls around, they catch each other at the wrong time and subsequently form incorrect images of the other in their head. Oscar’s got a best friend, Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), who models for him in a cosplay style. This work mixed with their honest conversations brings them close enough that sometimes the line blurs between friend and boyfriend/girlfriend. At one point, Gemma kisses him. It’s a one-time thing. Promptly we understand it’s a mistake, and meaningless, and not to be taken seriously; however, it happens as Peter arrives to pick them up from school. From then on, Peter incorrectly assumes they are dating. What he misses is Oscar’s budding friendship with a co-worker at a store reminiscent of Staples. They share a work shirt. They hangout. His name is Wilder (Aliocha Schneider).
When Oscar realizes his feelings for Wilder might be more than friendly, he becomes sick – mentally, and physically – and this is where Dunn’s best use of surrealism comes in. As things worsen, and Oscar wonders what Peter will think if he learns his son is gay, “something” pokes around his stomach. It attempts to break out, through his skin. When he gets sick after his first homosexual experience, he throws up screws and bolts. The “thing” that attempts to escape from his stomach, very much like “the Alien” in Alien, is the metal rod used in the murder he witnesses as a young boy. His deteriorating mental condition – which he hides fairly well, thanks to his hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), the only sense of calm or consistent friendship he receives – causes his friendship with Gemma to weaken at a fast pace.
The real turning point in the film comes in two places. When Oscar and Gemma have their fallout, Peter happens to run into her and asks outright if she and Oscar are in a relationship, “or if he’s…” She responds appropriately. “Is this really happening?” That line sums up the majority of this unique, wholly Canadian film. The other turning point comes as a result of the first, and it’s powerful.
Closet Monster bears resemblance to the work of another now-established young Canadian auteur, Xavier Dolan, from the same generation, and that’s a good thing. It wouldn’t be so bad to have more visionaries from different and distinct parts of Canada.
Closet Monster won Best Canadian Feature at TIFF, and Dunn was subsequently chosen for the Len Blum TIFF screenwriting residency. He’s only 27. Let’s see what’s next.