One of the most interesting debuts that screened at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, it'd be rather diminishing to reduce Closet Monster to yet another coming-out-coming-of-age-tale. Despite the title, this first feature is way more than just queer cinema and introduces the new impressive artistic talent of Canadian filmmaker Stephen Dunn.
Confidently shot and rich with stylish and psychedelic flavour à la Gregg Araki, Dunn tells a rather personal story about self-empowerment and self-affirmation that, although thin on plot in the traditional sense, still manages to build up dramatic tension that keeps mounting towards its extremely cathartic climax.
The film cements the promising talent of young Canadian star Connor Jessup (mostly known for his role on the Spielberg-produced alien drama Falling Skies), who shines with his blistering performance, and it undoubtedly announces the start of a wonderful career for Dunn. Plus the legendary Isabella Rossellini voices the protagonist's humorous talking hamster. What more do you need?
That’s right, Oscar (Jessup) owns a cute hamster, named Buffy in homage to the popular TV series. Don’t worry though; Dunn doesn’t anthropomorphise the cute pet using CGI or animatronics as Oscar talks to Buffy within the realm of his own imagination, the brilliant Rossellini’s voice work perfectly capturing the subconscious-fed character.
We’re drawn into Oscar’s life with some pivotal moments from his childhood: his family falling apart; his mother leaving; and, most importantly, the event that ignites the thematic thread of the story. One day, Oscar witnesses a brutal act of homophobic violence in the graveyard behind his school. He doesn’t understand what it means and his father’s explanation ends with the tactless advice of cutting his hair to avoid drawing any unwanted attention.
As we flash forward to Oscar’s teenage years, it’s immediately clear that the boy has grown into a young dreamer with artistic inclinations, driven and eager to leave his hometown behind and spread his wings. He works on his portfolio for college applications with his best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) and gets a retail job to save up money. When the dreamy, charming Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) is hired at the store, Oscar soon has to deal with new feelings stirring inside of him and figure out who he really is.
Dunn directs with strong personality, his fresh voice is rich with delicate sensibility and thematic poignancy, conveying how personal the material is and how much it matters to him. The cast complements his work with great turns across the board, led by Jessup’s mesmerizing performance, which brims with vulnerability and authenticity. What impresses the most is how the film transcends its queer cinema status and feels rather universal – the main topic of our conversation with the filmmaker during the BFI London Film Festival.
Feature debuts notoriously lean towards personal stories and, by your own admission, so does Closet Monster, a coming of age tale with a rather allusive title. Did you ever have second thoughts about this being your first film?
I definitely didn’t have any. I had to tell this story. Not everything I do is quite so personal and probably this is the first film that has revealed as much about me as it has. I’ve heard other people having some concerns but I just had to get some closure in my life and this was kind of the only way to own the shit that I had to go through without ever having any sort of final say in anything, so it was cathartic in a way to be able to share this story. It also made me pretty vulnerable which is kind of scary.
Given the very personal nature of the story, if you were to identify the main similarity between you and your protagonist, what would that be?
The origin of the story is about my own experience of internalized homophobia. The hate crime in the film is a real crime that happened in the graveyard behind my school. In real life the young man was sodomized with a branch and killed himself two years later. It was just so disturbing as a kid to learn that and associating sexuality with this kind of punishment really terrified me. I went to school with an ulcer as I didn’t know I was gay, I knew I was different, and felt like I was in danger for just being myself and it just made me completely sick. Even after coming out I was still afraid of being myself publicly.
I hate having to label your film as queer cinema. I think it's a powerful story that anyone can enjoy and there's nothing particularly graphic or off-putting about it. Is there a way to avoid such labels and have broader audiences embrace films with LGBTQ characters/content?
When you lump films that have queer content into this LGBTQ ghetto, you're unifying a bunch of completely different films, different stories and different genres over one aspect, as if you were unifying films about, I don't know, waiters. It's such a bullshit label to give to a film just because it has a gay character, though I understand it can help the film to find a certain audience. Yet I made Closet Monster hoping to make a film with queer content that's relatable not just to a queer audience. I didn't want to make something obscure. I love a film like Brokeback Mountain because it's about love and it's so universal. I don't expect my film to reach that kind of commercial success but I hope at least it can speak to a wider audience.
Did you have any particular filmmaking influences that inspired you? I felt the film had a bit of a Gregg Araki vibe.
Funny you mention that. I don't usually read reviews but I did read one that called my film a mash up of Araki and Cronenberg, which I thought it was hilarious. To be honest I didn't have a specific influence for this film. I'm usually drawn to the work of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman – a.k.a. directors who see reality but then bring it up to a heightened level. Cronenberg is also one of my favourites, together with David Lynch. For this film though I had no idea what I was doing. I kind of liked not knowing and not wanting to reference anything, except for Buffy the Vampire Slayer [laughs].
It was very honest and raw for me to make this movie and it all came down to just that one idea of something growing inside of him like an alien he can’t control. It’s a part of him but it’s not defining him and that fear manifests inside of him and he needs to be able to physically remove it. That was the core concept of this film: I wanted to physically extract fear from the body as a way of using it like a weapon to empower him and have that to be connected to his sexuality. The rest had to come organically like the talking hamster and the elements of magic realism.
Was it hard to get financing and get the ship going?
Surprisingly I had a lot of support, and it was unexpected. I’ve always had a tough time pitching the film as it’s about so many things and it’s not easy to describe. I guess there was a lot of good will around me because of my short films that screened at Sundance and won some major awards so people were excited to see what I was going to do. I also have to give a lot of credit to my producers Kevin Krikst and Fraser Ash, who championed the script since the start. It’s a big company I was working with, Rhombus Media, the leading Canadian production company that made $20 million films like Enemy with Jake Gyllenhaal. Mine was the smallest film they’d done in a while. They gave us a lot of trust and a healthy budget. It wasn’t a big budget but it wasn’t a micro one either.
Do you already know what’s next for you?
Well, right now I want to make my next film, which is very ambitious but also very personal. It’s set in Newfoundland again, the place I’m from in Canada, but it’s about what happened in the ‘60s when 50,000 people were forced out of Newfoundland to resettle and they weren’t given enough money to do so and they had to float their houses across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s quite an amazing phenomenon that happened and the film is about a family that gets lost whilst their house is floating across the ocean and they get separated. I really want to make this film and the script has already won some awards so hopefully we’ll start shooting next year if the stars align.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia