By Hans Pedersen, February 2016 Web Exclusive. Back to Echo’s Desperado 2016 coverage.
You don’t expect to find talking hamsters in stories about closeted LGBTQ youth. And you wouldn’t typically anticipate that such a diminutive pet would be voiced by actress Isabella Rossellini, but those are just two examples of the inventive, if risky, ideas behind Closet Monster.
The result is a warm and cuddly movie that’s a sublime, slightly surreal treat, fused together with a whimsical blend of colorful ideas and soothing ambient music.
Closet Monster, which earned the Best Feature Film award at the Toronto Film Festival, will screen at 8 p.m. Jan. 30 as part of the 2016 Desperado LGBT Film Festival.
Written and directed by Stephen Dunn, this Canadian feature film, set in the 1990s, is an enchanting coming-of-age story with a touch of magical realism. Conversely, it could also qualify as a bit of a gay horror film, although this inventive tale is not too heavy on the gore.
In the opening scenes we learn how little Oscar Madly was abandoned by his mother (Joanne Kelly), and was left to live with his brute of a father (Aaron Abrams), who makes cruel homophobic remarks. But a violent incident in a cemetery winds up making an even more traumatic impression on the youngster.
Through it all, he’s comforted only by his talking hamster, Buffy, voiced by Rossellini in a manner that makes the rodent immediately endearing. The name of the animal, a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” reference, is just some of the ‘90s nostalgia that sneaks into the film.
Buffy manages to be a reassuring presence for the boy, who quickly grows up (in a very savvy editing transition) into a budding special effects artist.
As a high school senior, Oscar (the Ultra-handsome Connor Jessup from TV’s “American Crime” and “Fallen Skies”) continues to cope with life through the reassuring conversations with his hamster, and gets support from his friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), who models his special-effects creations, which he photographs for his college application portfolio.
Camping out most of the time in his treehouse, Oscar avoids his father, whose violent temper makes him an unpredictable tempest.
Oscar has a big crush on Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), a cute European athlete at school. The charming teen with curly locks pointedly flirts with Oscar, as well as a couple of girls from class. Just as Oscar seems to be giving up on pursuing him, the two have a deep conversation, lying shirtless in bed together in a sweet romantic scene.
But Oscar remains tormented by that violent incident in the cemetery, leaving his brain jarred by gory images of getting impaled. The grisly act is eroticized, and the sexual undertone of the violent imagery is effectively disturbing, almost appearing to be a manifestation of Oscar’s own internalized homophobia.
Yet despite these fantastic and bloody sequences, the film’s dialogue is genuinely natural, and includes nuggets of wisdom from casual remarks like, “If you don’t hate your parents you become them”.
With a humanistic touch, Dunn deftly allows these moments to balance out the wild and fantastical scenes, keeping us emotionally invested in all the characters, even little furry Buffy.
Jessup does an outstanding job of laying the troubled young artist, whose attachment to his treehouse and hamster suggest the young man is having trouble shedding his childhood coping skills.
The story moves along swiftly, unfolding in the warm embrace of a gorgeous ambient soundtrack that unifies the action. Songs by Allie X and Ladytron, as well as the original score by Maya Postepski and Todor Kobakov, are simply amazing (where can one find the soundtrack?), and their masterful placement helps to define the film’s overall mood.
Camerawork by director of photography Bobby Shore is equally clever, foreshadowing future events or calamities. At times, a wild variety of colors can wind up infused into a single shot, and such frame composition instills the movie with a distinct psychedelic vibe.
Both absurd and authentic, Closet Monster is a mini-marvel headed up by a talented actor. Dunn has forged a quirky film that’s visually fun and full of moments of wonder, all enveloped in a warm sonic glow.
For more information on the Desperado LGBT Film Festival visit desperadofilmfestival.com or pick up the February Issue of Echo Magazine (out Jan. 21).