The world premiere of Closet Monster, which screened on Sunday as part of TIFF’s Discovery program, was a heart-wrenching experience and I don’t just mean the film itself. Director Stephen Dunn wept openly when asked whether his first feature film was auto-biographical in any way and recounted the story of a hate crime that happened in the Newfoundland town that he grew up in and the fear of his own sexuality that it instilled in him.
Described by the TIFF website as “a coming-of-age (and out-of-the-closet) story”, this small Canadian drama is as much about living with trauma as it is about coming out. Oscar (Connor Jessup) witnessed a brutal hate crime growing up similar to the one described by Dunn and the memory has haunted him ever since. As he is terrified to discover that he himself may be gay, every sexual impulse triggers graphic flashbacks of the incident. His crisis comes to a head when a cute male Montrealer shows up in town for the summer.
Closet Monster is not a perfect film. Most of the problems seem to come from Dunn’s inexperience as a feature filmmaker. A plot device involving a talking hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) is needlessly bizarre and goes nowhere. I found this easy to forgive though given the director’s obvious passion for the project. I got the sense that making even a single cut from material that he was so close to would wound him deeply.
There’s plenty to admire. Oscar’s anxiety about being true to himself is beautifully depicted, both through conventional drama and surreal fantasy sequences. And Jessup, who impressed me at the Festival three years ago in another small Canadian film called Blackbird, continues to be a young actor to watch out for.
Closet Monster isn’t always easy to watch but it is mostly very effective and moving and, if you’re up for it, I hope you’ll seek it out.