Just close your eyes: Closet Monster

Closet Monster (2015)

A beautiful and honest coming-of-age drama that stands out because of its conviction and uses a lot of fascinating symbolism to tackle familiar themes

Closet Monster

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Stephen Dunn. Star­ring Con­nor Jes­sup, Aaron Abrams, Joanne Kel­ly, Aliocha Schnei­der, Sofia Banzhaf, Jack Ful­ton, Mary Walsh and Is­abel­la Rosselli­ni.

Com­ing-of-age LGBT movies tend to fol­low an eas­i­ly rec­og­niz­able for­mu­la: a sen­si­tive teenag­er is at odds with his own sex­u­al­i­ty; usu­al­ly falls vic­tim to bul­ly­ing at school; fears his family’s (or friends’) ho­mo­pho­bia; and falls in love with the charm­ing boy who “sees him for who he is” and with whom he sad­ly won’t be to­geth­er in the end – which in­vari­ant­ly makes us feel like these con­trived sto­ries are try­ing too hard to sound ma­ture and sym­pa­thet­ic to the hard­ships that gay boys must face when grow­ing up. It’s the case for ex­am­ple of movies like Get Real (1998), Shel­ter (2007), Boys (2014) and many oth­ers. That be­ing said, it is also al­ways a plea­sure to come across a film that tries some­thing new with­in this worn-out sub­genre. Clos­et Mon­ster may not be ground­break­ing, but it puls­es with in­cred­i­ble hon­esty and uses a lot of nice sym­bol­ism to tack­le is­sues that most sim­i­lar movies touch upon only su­per­fi­cial­ly.

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Stephen Dunn (his fea­ture de­but) and in­spired by his own ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up as a gay teenag­er in St. John’s, Cana­da, Clos­et Mon­ster tells the sto­ry of Os­car Mad­ly (Con­nor Jes­sup), a cre­ative teenag­er whose in­ter­nal­ized ho­mo­pho­bia is di­rect­ly re­lat­ed to a trau­ma­tiz­ing event when he wit­nessed a bru­tal gay hate crime as a kid. Since then, he ba­si­cal­ly re­pressed every­thing about his own sex­u­al­i­ty and be­gan to trans­late this into art, cre­at­ing im­ages and sculp­tures of mon­sters that clear­ly rep­re­sent feel­ings that he doesn’t know how to deal with. But all this is about to change when he meets the cool and at­trac­tive new boy Wilder (Aliocha Schnei­der) and starts to face his own re­sent­ment to­wards his im­ma­ture fa­ther and his moth­er who left him when he was a child and now has an­oth­er fam­i­ly.

Win­ner of the award for best Cana­di­an fea­ture film at the Toron­to In­ter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val in 2015, Clos­et Mon­ster may sound like your typ­i­cal com­ing-out gay sto­ry, but it’s in­ter­est­ing to see what Dunn does with such a fa­mil­iar ma­te­r­i­al, telling his ver­sion and in a quite sin­cere way. I re­mem­ber see­ing him say in an in­ter­view once that he feels like the film ex­pos­es a lot of dif­fer­ent as­pects of his per­son­al­i­ty and in­ter­ests, which is easy to un­der­stand, it all feels very per­son­al. And what makes it spe­cial in fact is how it ap­proach­es its themes. Os­car is shown as an imag­i­na­tive boy who es­capes into a fan­ta­sy world to cope with his is­sues, and while I’m not a big fan of nar­ra­tive de­vices that make char­ac­ters seem schiz­o­phrenic, I ad­mire what Dunn is try­ing to do and the ef­fec­tive way he il­lus­trates the “clos­et mon­ster” of the ti­tle.

And who doesn’t love a talk­ing ham­ster? That’s right, Os­car has a ham­ster called Buffy (a clear ref­er­ence to Joss Whedon’s spec­tac­u­lar TV show) and voiced by no less than Is­abel­la Rosselli­ni. She is sup­posed to be his in­ner voice of con­science, and it is very nice to par­tic­i­pate in Oscar’s pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions with him­self – which in­cludes Buffy com­plain­ing that she can clean her own cage by her­self and in­di­cat­ing Oscar’s un­con­scious de­sire not to do it. Like­wise, I love to see how Os­car feels a stom­ach pain when he meets the good-look­ing Wilder or when­ev­er he is con­front­ed by his con­fused sex­u­al­i­ty (also sym­bol­ized by an iron bar that al­ludes to his mem­o­ry of the crime). Noth­ing seems more nat­ur­al then than see­ing Os­car vom­it­ing nails at some point when hav­ing sex with a man or need­ing to go back to a tree house to “res­cue” his child­hood.

But if Dunn could have eas­i­ly made some­thing heavy-hand­ed and pre­ten­tious try­ing to be David Lynch, Clos­et Mon­ster couldn’t be more down-to-earth in its ap­proach, find­ing space even for some wel­come mo­ments of hu­mor – like Oscar’s boss at the su­per­mar­ket giv­ing him ad­vice as to what to say to buy­ers or when we see Os­car try­ing to work with a straight face af­ter smok­ing weed with Wilder. Dunn also knows how to em­pha­size Oscar’s sen­si­bil­i­ty and in­ti­ma­cy by most­ly em­ploy­ing a re­duced depth of field, with a lot of close-ups and the use of rack fo­cus. And it is quite nice to see how the film frames Os­car in the cor­ner of the screen at a par­ty, un­der a red light, and the con­trast cre­at­ed be­tween the warm scenes that take place when Os­car is nine years old and the cold bluish palette when he is an 18-year-old teenag­er.

As Os­car, Con­nor Jes­sup may look too “nor­mal,” but that’s the point ac­tu­al­ly; he is sup­posed to be the typ­i­cal boy next door who feels alone, nev­er got over his par­ents’ di­vorce and is al­ways hos­tile to his moth­er. On the oth­er hand, Aliocha Schnei­der is per­fect as the easy­go­ing blond guy who every­one would want to date, while Sofia Banzhaf, an ac­tu­al real-life child­hood friend of Dunn’s, plays Oscar’s best friend Gem­ma. And if Joanne Kel­ly com­pos­es a car­ing moth­er who is con­stant­ly try­ing to reach out to her son – even if we nev­er re­al­ly know why she nev­er fought to have his cus­tody in the first place –, Aaron Abrams of­fers enough depth to Oscar’s im­pul­sive and ir­re­spon­si­ble fa­ther Pe­ter, who in­sists on keep­ing half of his ex-wife’s clothes just to prove a point and even ad­vis­es his son to cut his hair so he won’t be at risk of be­com­ing gay.

With a great sound­track and prov­ing to be a breath of fresh air among com­ing-out dra­mas, Clos­et Mon­ster stands out main­ly be­cause of its fas­ci­nat­ing sym­bol­ism and con­vic­tion – like with a clever scene that shows Oscar’s tran­si­tion from child­hood to ado­les­cence, when we see the 9‑year-old Os­car (Jack Ful­ton) cut­ting his hair and help­ing his fa­ther build the house tree (that is, em­brac­ing his “man­li­ness”) be­fore sud­den­ly falling down from it “into” his 18-year-old self. It’s these sim­ple but el­e­gant mo­ments that make this film so worth it – a film that in the end sur­pris­es us by even mak­ing a mere pop­ping sound so mean­ing­ful.

April 24, 2017

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