Oscar is a teenager, just coming into his own in life. Coming from a broken home and living with a difficult father, he’s seeking an escape, which he hopes to get by being accepted into a makeup school in New York. His father thinks Oscar may be dating his female friend, but actually Oscar is more interested in his male co-worker at his new job.
As the weeks go by, the pressure begins to build for Oscar as he increasingly feels trapped. Eventually they reach breaking point, with the memories of a horrific homophobic assault he witnessed as a child always haunting the back of his mind.
Plot-wise, Closet Monster isn’t desperately original, but where it scores a lot of points is the execution. Its quirks, such as the fact Oscar talks to his hamster, Buffy, and Buffy talks back (with the voice of Isabella Rossellini, no less), as well as its occasional dips into the fantastical, are extremely well done. What could have felt like quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness, instead add layers of both humour and horror to the film.
Closet Monster has a great sense for how teen life can sometimes feel both banal and extreme simultaneously, as well as how a series of relatively small things can build to the point where an explosion is almost inevitable. The film is particularly intrigued by how someone can be many things simultaneously, such as Oscar’s mother, who is both the woman who abandoned him and an odd source of stability, or his father, who clearly loves his son but also emotionally abuses him. It’s good that while it would have been easy to paint Oscar’s dad as a complete monster, he is instead someone who most of the time seems a nice, caring guy, but is trapped in a cycle of hurting and damaging those he loves, without properly realising that’s what he’s doing.
The key duality in Closet Monster is Oscar himself, who is both child and man, and it is his negotiation of that which forms the crux of the movie.
Oscar’s sexuality is interestingly handled as well, where he’s neither out and proud, nor in the closet and filled with angst. He knows he likes guys, and some of his friends are aware of it too, but he’s still reaching for what that means. And before some of you roll your eyes because that makes this sound like yet another coming out movie, it’s not, it’s just part of the texture of its exploration of this young man’s life.
With a smart and sometimes witty script, Closet Monster is a real charmer, with some moments of genuine power and emotion as well. A lot of credit also has to go to Canadian director, Stephen Dunn, who doesn’t simply point and shoot, but instead carefully constructs the key sequences to take advantage of camera angles, audience expectation, cinematic montage and timing. That’s particularly evident when Oscar has finally had enough, with the film taking us through a series of emotions and levels, and most particularly capturing the sensation of those moments when things are building inside someone to the point where there’s no choice but for them to escape in ways that could either be destructive or cathartic – or perhaps both at once.
Connor Jessup as Oscar ought to get some kudos too, as he puts in an exceedingly good performance in the central role, managing to express the roiling ups and downs of Oscar’s life, while keeping him anchored in the real world.
Closet Monster is one of those movies where for the first 10 minutes I thought it was just going to be the same film we’ve seen hundreds of times before, but it surprised with both its depth and its maturity. With many films you can sit on the outside feeling empathy for the characters, but what Closet Monster does well is to let you feel like you’re on the inside of Oscar’s world.
Overall Verdict: Sometimes a gay-themed coming-of-age movie stands out from the crowd, and Closet Monster certainly manages that.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac