Director Stephen Dunn’s unconventional coming-of-age tale, Closet Monster, combines a standard coming of age story with dashes of surrealism and fairy tale fantasy. If that description sounds ambitious, consider snippets of 18-year-old homosexual and aspiring movie make-up artist Oscar Madly’s (Connor Jessup) childhood during the film’s opening flashback narration.
In an overwhelming succession of big scenes, a then eight-year-old Oscar befriends a pet hamster named Buffy, who surprisingly communicates with him via Isabella Rossellini’s tenderly playful voice over. Without having much time to digest this phenomenon, Oscar next witnesses a gang of bullies brutally maim a young male victim with a metal fence stake (yet another vampire reference). Upon asking his newly divorced dad (Aaron Abrams) why such a thing could happen, the monstrously machismo homophobe blithely explains the victim’s death in three words — “he is gay” — and then advises Oscar to cut his hair.
Adding to the sheer intensity of these plot points is a propulsive ambient score that borders somewhere between ambient and ’70s B-film horror, ominously nebulous skies, and lowly lit quarters.
By starting Closet Monster with such a cacophonous genre mashup, Dunn bears the burden of continuing this level of audaciousness and high velocity storytelling for the rest of the film. He only partially succeeds, delivering instead a promising but unevenly told story which fluctuates between stock coming of age elements and exciting film making.
Closet Monster‘s middle act runs on neutral with flat dialogue, uninspired visuals, and stock small town characters. Oscar — intelligent, vulnerable, sensitive, and having yet to unveil his sexuality to most — secretly falls in love with Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), an eclectic and gentle male co-worker who is just passing through town. But Closet Monster never raises the stakes of this potential romance. Wilder’s behavior around Oscar — more mensch like and mildly flirtatious — tips his hand toward an unchallenging relationship between the two, regardless of whether they fall into romance or friendship.
Given such a thunderous beginning to the film, this subsequent chapter feels elongated and muddles crisper depictions of conflict, such as between Oscar and his parents. As the audience waits for more explosive drama to come to bear, the film’s relatively conflict-free middle lags.
Yet Close Monster‘s second act remains mildly entertaining, thanks to Connor Jessup’s deeply emotional, multi-faceted performance. Even in the film’s plainer moments, Jessup focuses the audience on Oscar’s internalized thoughts, which are chaotically bouncing around between monster-obsession and unaddressed sexually charged fantasy. There are, for instance, few young actors who can play an 18-year-old who believably engages in an ongoing internal dialogue with a ten year old hamster. Yet Jessup’s ability to channel frailty elevates these exchanges from strained metaphor to an organic take on an emotionally damaged creative young man’s perpetuation of childlike innocence in the face of a difficult sexual awakening.
Adding another layer to the lead, Jessup fluidly snaps back into a cynical young adult with a hundred yard stare whenever Oscar sees his father, who behind his good looks and somewhat attentive veneer, has a nasty streak, which Oscar has honed in on and is seething to pounce.
Despite Closet Monster‘s discordant elements and uneven tempo, the finalé returns to the vivid imagery and imagination that made its opening act so promising. A drug fueled costume party cast under purple strobe lights effectively fuses Oscar’s love and monster fantasies with the monstrous realities of a college dating scene. Dunn’s confident camera movements and well-timed cutbacks between the party and Oscar’s surrealistic impressions of his surroundings magnify the party from a bad experience to a horrific one. From there to the end of the film, the film’s visuals and mostly earned dramatic piques graduate Closet Monster from rote coming-of-age fare to an odyssey unique to Oscar’s eccentric vision of the world.
Even still, Closet Monster‘s storyline hastily ties together several loose chords into a generally neat resolution for Oscar. Just as Oscar needs to distance himself from his family and hometown, if Dunn can direct his next work with more considered distance from his characters, he has a great future as an inventive and assured film director.