‘Closet Monster’: TIFF Review

Courtesy of Fortissimo Films
An accomplished, courageously strange debut 

A gay teenager’s self-loathing attacks the body as well as the brain in young Canadian director Stephen Dunn’s stylish first feature.

Among a sea of transgender-theme features at this year’s TIFF and beyond, a film dealing with nothing more racy than plain old coming-out risks looking positively straitlaced. A good thing that this debut from 26-year-old Newfoundland native Stephen Dunn is so confidently made, not to mention truly, distinctively odd: a story of burgeoning sexual identity and growing up that also manages to pack in bouts of grisly body horror as well as scenes in which our protagonist converses with a pet hamster voiced by Isabella Rossellini. Autobiographical but also singularly imaginative, this formally exuberant bildungsroman plays like a Gregg Araki film with a dash of Cronenbergian psychosomatic body-rebellion thrown in.

Keeping it from looking like a pallid imitation is Closet Monster’s sheer oddness, as well as the director’s nostalgia for the '90s in which he grew up, evident in frequent nods to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular. Dunn’s avatar-like central character has a hamster named Buffy, he applies horns to the head of his best friend, Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), before class and he’s applying for makeup school in New York; his portfolio looks like a compilation of forensic photographs from Sunnydale High’s mortuary.

Oscar (played as a boy by Jack Fulton) lives in Newfoundland with his parents, whose marriage is about to end acrimoniously when his mother (Joanne Kelly) leaves. Around the same time the boy witnesses three kids attack a fourth for being gay; the metal rod with which the teenager is violently assaulted renders him paralyzed from the waist down. The eight-year-old Oscar stalks the assailants with a stake but looks on frozen during the attack, which takes place in a cemetery: a dark real-life rejoinder to Buffy’s quip-a-minute ass kicking.

Dunn then jumps forward 10 years, to Oscar (now played by Blackbird’s Connor Jessup) on the verge of graduation. His nascent sexual urges go into overdrive when he gets a job at a hardware store (whose sales policy is amusingly summarized by his boss as pointing at items and remarking, “That’s a nice one” to customers ad nauseam) and meets the charismatic Wilder (Aliocha Schneider, in a role that’s a slightly more sympathetic variation on the one his older brother Niels played in Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats from 2010). But Oscar’s sexual awakening is accompanied by flashes of gore that, while plainly psychological, manifest physically in a manner that is skillfully handled by the filmmaker to seem both literal and metaphoric.

The same goes for Buffy the hamster, the film’s nuttiest gambit but one whose potentially disastrous cutesiness is offset by a wry sense of humor. “I’m your spirit animal,” the hamster tells Connor, in a line funny for being so literal. Buffy is the external embodiment of Connor’s true self, suppressed by that childhood memory of violent homophobia as well as his parent’s divorce and his father’s offhand disdain for queers. Dunn uses Buffy as a valve to let some air into all that hormonal anxiety. Rossellini’s voice suffers an existential crisis when Connor discovers his hamster has been a boy all along, and when it comes time for an emotional farewell the hamster tells him he’s not the same one the teenager recalls growing up with: “Your parents replaced me, like, four times.”

Cinematographer Bobby Shore recently demonstrated his horror bona fides in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation; his work here is more colorful but just as atmospheric, investing the streets of Newfoundland with a heightened vibrancy befitting the film’s earthy magical realism. Closet Monster also features one of the most propulsive soundtracks of the year, with music from the likes of Ladytron, Austra, Allie X and the ubiquitous Nils Frahm, supplementing an ambient score from composers Maya Postepski and Todor Kobakov that’s as evocative and confidently eclectic as the film itself.

 

Production companies: ARP, TF1 Films Production

Production Companies: Rhombus Media, Best Boy Entertainment

Cast: Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams, Joanne Kelly, Aliocha Schneider, Sofia Banzhaf, Jack Fulton, Mary Walsh, Isabella Rossellini

Writer/director: Stephen Dunn

Producers: Kevin Krikst, Fraser Ash, Edward J. Martin

Executive producers: Niv Fichman, Ed Martin

Director of photography: Bobby Shore

Production designer: Lisa Soper

Costume designer: Melanie Oates

Editor: Bryan Atkinson

Composers: Maya Postepski, Todor Kobakov

Casting: Deirdre Bowen

Sales: Fortissimo Films

 

No rating, 90 minutes

 

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