Oscar witnessed a brutal assault when he was a child. A teen was attacked by a group of bullies behind the elementary school. The local news called it a hate crime. When he asked his father why it happened, his old man replied, “He was gay.” As that information sank into the boy’s malleable brain, still reeling with shock over seeing such violence first-hand and not entirely sure what “gay” even means, his father leaned over and tousled his shaggy blonde locks, saying that’s why he should get a haircut. This cements gayness as a danger in his young mind, as something for which you can be targeted. It’s coded and confusing. The times may be a-changing, but curious people wrestling with their sexuality can still too often feel shame, self-loathing, and denial. By the time Closet Monster catches up with Oscar as a high-school senior (Connor Jessup, fresh from a heartbreaking performance on American Crime; he was a troubled teen wrestling with identity there, too), the baggage of his early understanding of what it means to be gay hangs heavily on his burgeoning same-sex attractions.
Here’s a sensitive movie closely attuned to its central character’s predicament, using notes of whimsy – some dark, others light – to animate his internal conflict. He’s an inexperienced and curious young man, artistic, loyal to his best friend (Sofia Banzhaf), bitter about his parent’s nasty divorce, cramped in his small hometown, desperate to get into a cinema makeup program in a New York City college. When he sees a new co-worker (Aliocha Schneider) at his minimum wage hardware store job, he can’t help but notice the young man’s strong jaw line, curly hair, French-Canadian accent, toned arms, strong back, slim waist. The camera cuts to these features as they catch Oscar’s eye. The film feels the attraction, and as Oscar takes it in there’s a roiling in his gut. We hear burbling on the soundtrack as he’s hit by attraction so strong it feels like a body horror eruption, growling and moving under his skin. These are no mere butterflies in the stomach. Oscar feels this curiosity, this heat, as something sudden, unexpected, and painful. He can barely admit to himself that when he sees this young man, he wants to impress, wants to hang out with, and wants to touch him.
When he gets home, his hamster (who speaks to him, and only him, in the voice of Isabella Rossellini) says, “You’re in love.” He denies it. But he certainly won’t resist, as the new co-worker becomes something like a friend. It’s hard to say if this guy is exceptionally flirtatious or just vaguely European, but it’s easy to see Oscar’s happy to spend time with his crush, even if it means ignoring his other friend, or raising the suspicions of his homophobic father (Aaron Abrams, as a sometimes-loving father increasingly a slave to his own problems). He feels so alone in his feelings – isolated from his parents even as he moves between their houses; unable to share his curiosities about sexuality with even his oldest friend; stuck working a job he doesn’t like while waiting and hoping he’ll hear back from the college to which he’s applied – he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s confused, questioning. It’d be easy to say he’s closeted, but that’s not quite the case. He doesn’t even know what he is. He needs time to think, space to explore, permission to find himself. And until he get it, his emotions are going to continue feeling like they’re eating him alive from the inside out.
It’s not quite a horror movie, even as writer-director Stephen Dunn digs into some shocking images as part of his approach. The hate crime in the beginning involves a metal rod, which later appears in a nightmarish hallucination protruding from Oscar’s pants. Even later, at a costume party he’s attending despite his father’s protestations, Oscar vomits, and it looks to him like he’s spitting up bloody screws into the sink. The movie visualizes the boy’s pain on a visceral level with these touches. Although its magical realism can quiver with angst and violence it tends more to manifest in subtle ways, like a rejection letter turning every word on screen – in a note, on a sign, on the walls – into “unfortunately,” and, of course, the talking hamster who is his only respite from deep soul-churning loneliness. Dunn, in a most impressive feature debut, makes the film a dreamy, hazy, deeply empathetic character study, a throbbing, pulsing soundtrack and beautifully grainy cinematography sticking closely to Oscar’s mood. The film’s surrealistic touches aren’t a distraction, but amplification, a dramatic outward bursting of conflict that largely exists burrowing deeper and darker inside him, ready to eventually explode.
Jessup, so good at projecting a deep unspoken yearning mixed with shy determination to avoid disappointment even as he’s frustrated by his limitations, finds great poignancy in his struggle. Oscar is quiet, unsure, struggling to realize his full potential in the usual coming-of-age manner, asking the basic 18-year-old’s questions. Who am I? Who will I be? What do I want? But the context – sexual confusion, social awkwardness, repression, and internalized homophobia – is so tender and so raw, heightening his sense of turmoil. This is a film that understands that these questions are intense, and the adolescent mind interprets every variable through a complicated and dramatic lens. Dunn is smart to keep the movie small, to not reach too far for grander import or flashier melodrama. It’s a movie about wanting a kiss, arguing with a parent, deciding where to go to college, and arriving at a place where you can let go of past trauma. It’s about the monsters you find in your own mind when trying to hide your truth, especially if you’re hiding from yourself.