Stephen Dunn works a delicate balance with his “Closet Monster,” an imaginative spin on the coming-of-age tale that blends together both straightforward storytelling and recognizable emotional beats with creative flourishes. Those flourishes — including a talking hamster and a series of fantasy sequences — are treated with the same equanimity as the rest of the more reality-rooted elements, allowing “Closet Monster” to retain an authenticity that other, similar features may not be able to hold on to with such grace.
The film is Dunn’s first feature, and he uses it as a vehicle to explore familiar territory with style and tenderness. Young Oscar Madly (played as a child by Jack Fulton) has a seemingly idyllic childhood, one that is punctuated by his father’s (Aaron Abrams) rich imaginative, is brutally disrupted by his parents’ separation, an event that turns Oscar bitter, while his once-loving father becomes cold and distant. Already in a state of emotional turmoil, elementary school-aged Oscar witnesses a heinous crime against a classmate that compels him to further hide his emerging sexuality. Taught from a young age that being gay is something to be feared or, at the very least, concealed and repressed, Oscar internalizes the crime, a reaction he doesn’t fully understand until years later.
Played in his teen years by Connor Jessup, when we catch up with Oscar once he’s on the cusp of adulthood, he’s still reeling from the events of his childhood (and his father hasn’t gotten much better) Highly creative, Oscar spends his time crafting magnificent practical make-up effects for his over-the-top best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), taking photos of his artistry and building inventive additions to his hamster’s cage. And about that hamster…
Alive for far longer than any other normal hamster, Buffy — who talks, if only to Oscar, and is voiced by Isabella Rossellini — acts as both a comfort to Oscar and as his conscience, going so far as to bill himself (or herself? Buffy’s gender identification is a plot point in the film) as Oscar’s “spirit animal.” The animal illustrates Oscar’s profound tenderness and his deep loneliness in equal measure. Once Oscar meets sexy Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) at work, his carefully constructed facade begins to crumble, and the hormonally-mad teenager begins to give himself over to desire.
Oscar’s fixation on Wilder — who is attractive and mysterious, but not particularly nice, sort of the platonic ideal for a teen crush — pushes him into new modes and methods of reaction, many of which feel jarringly violent. As he begins to experience the world around him through the emotional milieu of falling in love for the first time, other things come into sharp focus and the already creatively inclined Oscar begins to blend fantasy with reality. The film’s visuals are lush and dreamy, and Dunn makes even Oscar’s tired old town look fresh. The film winds down to a fairly obvious conclusion, but that does not dilute the satisfaction it also earns along the way.
“Closet Monster” may feature a talking hamster and a hefty volume of very bloody flashbacks-turned-fantasy, but Oscar’s issues continually remain real and relatable. Dunn plays around with perspective and style, but all the flash doesn’t obscure the film’s emotion and heart, which are deep and true.
The talking hamster is just a bonus.
“Closet Monster” premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.