Writer/Filmmaker Stephen Dunn’s hometown of St. John’s Newfoundland becomes the backdrop of this sporadically high energy film called Closet Monster, which most people are calling a coming of age drama. The film surely explores protagonist Oscar Madly’s (actor Connor Jessup) childhood, teen years and some evolution of his sexuality, but the core of this film is the dysfunction of our human relationships and how love turns to violence; this was the main ‘sub-text’ of the film from where I was watching.
After his parents’ divorce when he is only a young boy, Oscar deals with an erratic and possessive father Peter (Aaron Abrams) and an objective but slightly detached mother Brin (Joanne Kelly). He moves back and forth between his parents’ two homes, touched by the hatred they harbour for each other, as his own brews through his teens years. He is also haunted by an incident of homophobic violence when a fellow in his school is subjected to violent hazing. Traumatized by this, his discovery of his sexuality is constantly haunted by this event. Dunn uses an interesting, althought, I felt, a little odd, way to have this play out through the use of a creature housed in Oscar’s belly (quite literally).
Oscar grows up nurturing his dream to go to school in New York City, where he would pursue his dream of becoming a make-up artist. He is working on a portfolio to send to New York, with his partner in crime and close friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), who finds herself attracted to Oscar, though constantly offended by his confusions. This was a wonderful relationship, that comes to some development through the film, but barring some teenage heartbreak does little else.
The real drama takes root when Oscar meets his extremely attractive co-worker Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), who just like his name attracts with his free spirit. Oscar is instantly taken by the stranger from the moment he lends him his shirt. He sits in the washroom smelling the t after Wilder has worn it and then hesitantly invites him to his tree house, vulnerable yet desirous of him.
While Dunn wants you to believe that Oscar’s sexuality/teenage confusion is at the heart of this narrative, it’s the relationship he has with his parents and the violence his father perpetuates around the family that stirred the most emotion in me. The most touching scene is when after a night of raving, drinking and partying Oscar shows up at his mother’s house and breaks in through the kitchen window. He confesses to her that his abandonment by her was the cause of his ‘fucked up state’. True to her character, she recounts how he was born with his umbilical cord wound around his neck three times over. In her simple words, ‘if your life is going to mean walking through shit all the time, might as well develop a thick skin.’ The mother and son hug.
Oscar shares this cute, heartwarming relationship with a talking hamster, who seems to be his only constant and sanity in the world that he inhabits. The hamster is used effectively at times but other times it’s a little overdone.
The film is stunningly shot, with moving close-ups lacing the entire canvas of this 90 odd minutes length of the film. Stylized to the hilt, the music got a bit jarring for me in a few places, but the electronic beats and experimental tunes helped traverse the narrative.
Closet Monster is a lot of things: packed with stirring thoughts about dysfunctional families, parental violence and abandonment, exploration of a budding sexuality, friendship, heartbreak and the stunning natural spirit that is Newfoundland. But in the mix of this zing I felt I wasn’t able to see into Oscar’s heart.