Rarely are teen narratives are met with the ingenuity and inventiveness of Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster – even rarer within specifically queer ones. Even solid recent examples (like this weekend’s The Edge of Seventeen) tend to be straightforward affairs, more often than not becoming bland in presentation. That lack in imagination bleeds over into character development, narrative point of view, and conflict resolution in ways that undermine the value of their own subject. Thankfully this is not the case with the ambitious Closet Monster.
Dunn’s take is a coming out narrative you’ve certainly seen before with a few inclusions that make the film spark with personality and uniqueness. Oscar (Connor Jessup) lives with his father (Aaron Abrams) under the umbrella of toxic masculinity as he prepares for college and hides out as a loner. While the familiar story beats of divorce and virginity pop up, the real sparkle comes from side diversions like Oscar’s horror makeup dreams and his spirit animal / imaginary friend relationship with his hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). Oscar’s trauma isn’t limited to standard bullying tropes and a macho father, but the fatal gaybashing he witnessed in youth manifests in both his self-worth and sexual anxiety. This isn’t starting to sound so familiar, is it?
But it isn’t merely its more obvious differences that set Closet Monster apart. There is a sensitivity and unassuming nature to the film that gives its more performative flourishes a grounded reality to build from. Abrams father is a pure poon-chaser, but not the hulking and farting cliche vision of the homophobic father just as Oscar himself isn’t an empty, naive gayby. The pain of being a child of divorce, of loneliness is given a distanced, normalized quality that flares up rather than providing steady frivolous melodrama. Sex is terrifying and craved without being portrayed through rose-tinted glasses once achieved. There is intimacy to go with the modest ambition.
If the film ultimately relents to hokeyness, it does so by following its cathartic narrative path rather than adhering to formula, at least until its final beats. Closet Monster has the comfort of easy sentiment that balances against Oscar’s lived in pain and shame, concluding in a heartwarming but less complicated terms that it began. For such an intriguingly untidy film, Dunn caps of the film as you might expect from cozy teen fare. However, this film gives another impressive debut feature in a year that has been filled with them, and Dunn’s voice is among the most imaginative and holistic.