Coming of age is always fraught with anxiety, but two queer films about teenagers, “Closet Monster” and “Girls Lost,” that had their World Premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, use fantasy elements to illuminate the uneasy transformation from innocence to adulthood. Both films grapple with sexual identity issues with surprising grace.
“Closet Monster,” the first feature written and directed by Stephen Dunn, opens with the birth of Oscar (Connor Jessup plays him as a teen) and the birth of a hamster, Buffy (Isabella Rossellini provides the voice). Oscar receives Buffy as a young boy at the exact moment his parents Peter (Aaron Abrams) and Brin (Joanne Kelly) announce that they are getting a divorce. Oscar confides in Buffy, his “spirit animal” but their relationship never seems forced; rather, Buffy provides Oscar with an outlet for his emotions, and someone to care for given how lonely he feels. Oscar is coping not only with his difficult family situation, but he is also haunted by a sexual assault he witnessed as a young boy. As he grows older, Oscar channels his energy into creating photographs of horror film images as if to have some control over his anxieties.
“Closet Monster” features symbols—like a haircut to symbolize a life change, horns and makeup Oscar wears as armor or a disguise, or a shirt he shares with Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), a co-worker he is crushed on—but always in a stylish, never heavy-handed, fashion. Dunn respects the myths about masculinity and identity he depicts, and when he adds surreal touches, like Oscar vomiting nuts and bolts during an intense moment, or having a strange reaction in his body, these episodes make sense, and reinforce the themes of psychological horror and distress. Oscar’s sexuality scares him, but the film makes it clear why he has feelings of shame. Much of this revolves around his relationship with his father, but not exclusively.
“Closet Monster” does tread some familiar terrain of queer coming-of-age films. Oscar wonders is-he-or-isn’t-he gay? about Wilder, the appropriately named character who helps Oscar become empowered and find himself. Likewise, the token gay gal-pal, Oscar’s friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), also proves to be a good foil, especially when she responds to Peter’s cluelessness about his son’s sexual identity.
However, it is Dunn’s shrewd ability to convey the awkwardness of teenage sexuality and still prompt a smile from viewers that makes “Closet Monster” so special. The increasingly tender scenes between Oscar and Wilder (and yes, those names go together) display this form of magic; the erotic tension that exists between the guys is stimulating as Oscar’s fascination with the insouciant Wilder reaches its climax.
“Closet Monster” benefits from Jessup’s assured performance as Oscar. But his character’s getting of wisdom and reactions to the pressures and rejection and confusion he faces are authentic. Even if Dunn cloaked them in a surrealistic fantasy, the emotions are remarkably heartfelt and heartrending.
Alexandra-Therese Keining’s engaging drama “Girls Lost” is a curious gender-bender that opens with a note that reads, “If you are blind to what is different, this story is not for you.” Three teenage girls, Kim (Tuva Jagell), Bella (Wilma Holmén), and Momo (Louise Nyvall) are best friends who are bullied in school. Their female gym teacher tells Kim to toughen up, which is not necessarily the best or most appropriate response to the daily situation of the girls being called “cunts” and “whores” by the guys in their class who also beat them or strip them of their clothes. By and large, adults in “Girls Lost” are noticeably absent or impaired figures that do not or cannot respond to the female teenagers’ problems.
All this changes when the girls discover a magic female flower, with a vanilla sap that transforms them—after they taste it—overnight into boys. Kim (Emrik Öhlander) Bella (Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund) and Momo (Alexander Gustavsson) soon enjoy male privilege, and the girls are emboldened by the physical changes they experience, however briefly. Kim, in particular, develops the confidence she lacked as a female, and starts asserting herself in school, unafraid of the guys who previously abused her. Moreover, Kim, who worships androgynous musicians like Patti Smith, Grace Jones, and David Bowie, feels that she is more real, more comfortable, as a male. Her story gets complicated when she becomes attracted to Tony (Mandus Berg), a bad boy who has (the male) Kim help him with petty theft. The sexual tension that exists between the male Kim and Tony keeps “Girls Lost” interesting, especially when Bella asks Kim—do you love him or want to be like him? The idea of same- or trans-sexual desire vs. physical gender transformation is intriguing, with Keining focused on portraying the emotions of her characters. Things get especially complex when Bella expresses her attraction to Kim, wanting to be with her or him, and thereby creating a kind of love triangle.
But while the points Keining makes about gender identity and sexuality are interesting—would Bella, who prefers being female, become male to be with the male Kim?—the film boxes itself in a corner, by raising and not really exploring these ideas further. “Girls Lost” closes with a scene that is meant to be open-ended, but it is really more of a cop out or a compromise.
Both “Closet Monster” and “Girls Lost” are having repeat screenings at TIFF.