The teenage coming-out dramedy is by now such a subgenre unto itself, so familiar in its usual beats, that it takes a while to realize a rare film like “Closet Monster” is actually bringing something original to the form. Canadian writer-director Stephen Dunn’s first feature treads no new ground in basic outline. But the risk-taking confidence with which he weaves in sardonic magical-realist elements, not to mention his unpredictable yet assured approaches to style and tone, make this a most auspicious debut. After a year’s well-received travel on the festival circuit, Strand launches a tiered U.S. theatrical release Sept. 23 in New York.
We first meet Oscar Madly as a precocious tyke (Jack Fulton) about seven years’ age. When his parents give him a pet hamster, it’s to soften the blow of their split announcement: Mom Brin (Joanne Kelly) is leaving, having had enough of dad Peter’s (Aaron Abrams) antics. Distraught Oscar is comforted by his new friend, who’s dubbed Buffy and speaks appropriately enough in the voice of famous animal enthusiast Isabella Rossellini. A significant crimp is put in development of the boy’s as yet barely-conscious sexual identity when he witnesses some older bullies savagely beat a presumably gay kid in a graveyard near school. Further encouraged by dad’s flippant homophobia, Oscar embarks on a regime of he-man activities to keep himself from meeting a similar fate.
A decade or so later, he’s an 18-year-old virgin (Connor Jessup) who channels energies into the fantasy worlds of monster makeup, hoping to go into the movies one day. His usual guinea pig is bestie Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), an aspiring model whose feelings toward Oscar are perhaps less platonic than any he feels in return. Enduring a hopefully final summer in St. John’s while waiting to hear if he’s been accepted to a special Stateside design academy, he works at a Home Depot-type superstore. There, life is suddenly much enlivened by the arrival of Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), an effortlessly cool visitor from Montreal who sends out ambiguous sexual signals with bemused panache.
But Oscar’s own sexuality — even his erotic imagination — remains haunted by the memory of that gay-bashing, which was so brutal it left its victim paralyzed. Meanwhile, our protagonist still resents the mother who abandoned him (though she keeps trying to repair their relationship), and living with dad grows ever more unbearable. A quintessential man-child unable to admit his past failures or move forward, Peter is approaching middle-age with less accumulated maturity than his barely-legal only child. Their long-simmering conflict comes to a head in a terrific moment of cathartic rage, though not before Oscar has run the gamut of other emotions during a druggy night’s partying alongside Wilder and an amorous stranger (James Hawksley).
“Closet Monster” bears numerous aspects of coming-out drama cliché —the misfit kid, dysfunctional parents, pining female BFF, the alluring new friend — but they rarely play as such. Dunn (who’s just 27) has honed a distinctive sensibility over nearly a decade of prior shorts. Ergo he has no trouble here juggling a complex menu that encompasses elements of whimsy, horror, psychological realism, comedy, and pathos. Aesthetically, too, the film makes a lot of bold choices that mesh surprisingly well, with impressive design contributions both visual and sonic. DP Bobby Shore (“Goon”) rises to the challenge of his director’s freewheeling agenda, while the vaguely retro electronica original score (by Todor Kobakov and Maya Postepski) and various-artist cuts soundtracked each add assertive musical commentary.
Add to that the first-rate performances he draws from the entire cast in nicely dimensionalized roles, and Dunn looks like a talent to be reckoned with, one whose appeal seems unlikely to be limited to primarily gay audiences for long.