8-years-old Oscar Madly became traumatized. Around the same time that his mother left their family (with Oscar firmly taking his dad's side), Oscar witnessed a gay hate crime at school that left the victim bloodied and permanently paralyzed. Ten years pass. Oscar, befriended by his talking hamster Buffy, wants to get into a special effects make-up school (using his friend Gemma as a model), and has come to realize his spiteful father's anti-social, immature short-comings. When Oscar meets co-worker Wilder at the hardware store, sexual feelings begin to stir but accompanied by severe stomach pains (the memory of the hate crime). A farewell costume party for Wilder brings Oscar's issues to a head, expressed sometimes in surreal terms.Written by
Closet Monster is that rare first feature coming from an auteur with vision, clarity of thought and a voice unique enough to rise above the noise. Chances are few will see it; its limited appeal, not to mention limited release isn't likely to turn many heads. Yet for those who seek it, and more importantly, those who stumble on it years in the future, this movie is just enough to maybe fall in love with.
Even at a young age, Oscar (Jessup) didn't exactly have it easy. His parents divorced early on in a scene depicted as both turbulent and petulant. He boards largely with his father (Abrams), in a living situation that highly suggests some serious transgressions on the mother's (Kelly) part. What's worse is somewhere amid the memories of tree house building and playing vampire hunter, Oscar vividly remembers the beating and paralysis of a gay teenager from his school. Years later Oscar's worst kept secret is hidden from his father by his presumed interest in his photography model Gemma (Banzhaf) and a macabre fascination with monster makeup. That of course all changes and threatens to unravel with the arrival of Wilder (Schneider), whose wavy blonde hair and exotic accent appeals to the tortured Oscar.
Oscar's story might as well be an analog to every closeted teen, suffocating under the provincialism of their hometown, longing for an escape to the assumed gay utopias of New York, San Francisco or Miami Beach. The universality of his story is further hammered home by a host of tried and true storytelling techniques literalizing his journey. Oscar infers his conscience via his pet guinea pig Buffy (Rossellini) in order to process his complex emotions. Key images and plot points are amplified by hyperbole and forays into body horror and intellectual montage. In many ways Closet Monster invites comparisons to other fanta-fablest films like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) and Swiss Army Man (2016) especially when it comes to exploring emotionally salient themes.
Yet just like those films, Closet Monster occasionally undermines its themes in the service of artistic flourish. Director Stephen Dunn indulges in one too many moments of ponderous slow-motion and euphoric whimsy with the same film-school pretension that sunk similar films like Before I Disappear (2014). Yet when the movie pivots into its groove, it really does have a lot to say through Oscar's unique, granular life. Connor Jessup does an incredible job balancing a role that requires layers of alienation, tension and longing while also conveying outward vulnerability and priggishness. While I personally wish his relationship with his father had more complexity and objectivity than the average emotional abuse cliché, the film does leave things open for reconciliation.
Closet Monster is certainly not the definitive coming-out movie; I'm pretty sure The Way He Looks (2014) took that spot away from My Own Private Idaho (1991) quite some time ago. Yet as a evocative drama and melancholic piece of entertainment, it has the seriousness and caprice to stand on its own merits. And if it gives young kids like Oscar the courage to be themselves then I say it's all worth it.
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