Sometimes witnessing a tragic event can be just as damaging as actually having a hand in the incident. The lingering impact of trauma fuels Stephen Dunn’s bold and occasionally dark feature length directorial debut Closet Monster. Utilizing coming-of-age tropes to explore the ways in which trauma influences self-loathing, Dunn constructs a film that, despite stumbling at times, is consistently interesting.
From a very young age Oscar’s (Connor Jessup) life has travelled a difficult path. As if seeing the disintegration of his mother (Joanne Kelly) and father’s (Aaron Abrams) marriage was not damaging enough, the young lad also witnesses a group of teens beating and subsequently murdering another teen for simply being gay. Now a teenager himself with aspirations of attending a prestigious film makeup school in New York, Oscar is still unable to shake the nightmarish incident. Images of the crime frequently seeps into his subconscious and impacts his ability to come to terms with his own sexuality. The fact that his father frequently bashes homosexuals with his off-handed remarks also does not help matters much.
Unable to express his inner turmoil to his best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), and unsure of what his future holds, the only thing that Oscar is clear about is his attraction to his co-worker Wilder (Aliocha Schneider). An easy-going individual, with the right amount of bad boy charm, Wilder seems to be the only person who can truly see Oscar. He immediately understands that Oscar is gay before Oscar seems willing to acknowledge this fact himself.
Mixing a coming-of-age tale with a good dose of psychological body horror, Closet Monster is a film one does not easily forget. Whether delving into moments of surrealist humor, take for example they way Oscar’s subconscious manifests in the form of his talking hamster Buffy (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), or exploring the darker side of Oscar’s mind, Dunn handles it all with the confidence of a seasoned director. While the film has shades of David Cronenberg and Xavier Dolan throughout, Aliocha Schneider plays a role that is very similar to the one his brother played in Dolan’s Heartbeats, Dunn ensures that his distinct voice always shines through.
Though the film occasionally stumbles in the way it handles the various conflicts between Oscar and his parents-Joanne Kelly’s character Brin feels woefully underused, and the last act is not as tight as it could be-Closet Monster always manages to stay afloat thanks in part to the work of Conner Jessup. Giving a star-making performance, Jessup is masterful in the film. He brings an intensity to the role that allows him to accurately display the internal war waging inside of Oscar.
Thanks to Jessup’s stirring work, and Dunn’s ability to dive into dark territory with confidence, Closet Monster overcomes its occasional missteps and proves to be an engaging film.