By Gary Krammer
Closet Monster, opening December 2 in San Francisco, is a fantastic—as in great, as in surreal—Canadian film about Oscar (Connor Jessup), a confused teenager who confides his troubles to his pet hamster, Buffy (voiced by Isabella Rossellini).
Oscar has many troubles. He is growing detached from his father, Peter (Aaron Abrams), and is almost completely estranged from his mother Brin (Joanne Kelly). He dreams of being a makeup artist, and creates monstrous designs for his best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) to model. Gemma is crushed on Oscar, but Oscar is crushed on Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), whose sexuality appears to be fluid. What is more, Oscar is still haunted by a childhood tragedy he witnessed as a young boy, which involved a classmate being sodomized by a metal rod in a hate crime.
Director Stephen Dunn tackles many heavy themes in Closet Monster, especially involving shame and sexuality. But his engaging film, while dark, is more life-affirming than depressing. The images are vivid, and the performances, by Jessup especially, are quite powerful. Dunn spoke with me via Skype for the San Francisco Bay Times about his film.
Gary M. Kramer: You mix harsh reality with fantasy in Closet Monster, and it works splendidly. How did you come up with the film’s characters, the storyline, and the symbols?
Stephen Dunn: For me, the one symbol the entire film is inspired by is the hate crime weapon—a symbol of fear that is also used as a weapon of defense. I developed the entire story back from that image. I wanted there to be only one true person Oscar can be vulnerable and honest with: Buffy. She was there with him during the hate crime and she knows more about this psychology and what’s going on with him internally than Oscar does himself.
Gary M. Kramer: The story is a coming of age tale that shows how Oscar copes with fear and trauma. What can you say about the way Oscar deals with his family situation, his sexuality, and the other difficulties he faces?
Stephen Dunn: There is a lot of isolation. Oscar has separated himself from his family. His relationship with his mother is non-existent. He’s grown apart from his father, whom he drew his creativity from as a child. He resents his father and his casual homophobia, which severs their bond. He has a confusing relationship with his best friend, Gemma, who likes him. The only way he can confront that isolation is after he meets Wilder, his first crush, who forces him to acknowledge this presence growing inside of him that’s been growing his whole life.
It’s not a love story. It’s a self-love story: a young man learning to overcome internalized homophobia from the metaphor of something literally growing inside of him.
Gary M. Kramer: What can you say about Buffy as a spirit animal for Oscar? Why a hamster?
Stephen Dunn: [Laughs]. Because I had a lot of hamsters growing up. I was also an only child and I wanted Oscar to have no one to turn to as a child going through a divorce. I wanted the hamster to have a persona and be a pivotal identity for him.
Gary M. Kramer: Closet Monster has many textures, from the smell of the shirt Wilder borrows to the horns that Oscar (and Gemma) wears, to the fur cap, or the metal rod that is the hate crime weapon. Can you talk about creating the textures?
Stephen Dunn: All the things you mentioned are elements that are telegraphed through Oscar’s point of view. They heighten his imagination or access his memory. We achieved them through macro-photography and slow-motion. I wanted to get into Oscar’s head and see his perspective. The rod is rough and visceral and bloody. It haunts him throughout his adolescence. The fur hat is reminiscent of Buffy. I wanted to tie Buffy into Oscar’s lack of a maternal figure throughout his childhood.
Gary M. Kramer: What can you say about the vivid visuals in the film? You depict Oscar on drugs at a party through a series of staccato shots.
Stephen Dunn: I collaborated with my production designer and cinematographer to create a palate and texture for the film—to create a reality. We wanted to have it grounded in reality and heightened in areas that push the boundaries, so Oscar vomiting nuts and bolts in the party scene is a frenetic and chaotic experience, especially in regards to the rest of the film. I wanted that to be loud, aggressive, and bombastic, and contrasted greatly by the tender, quiet treehouse sequence when Oscar and Wilder share a moment of intimacy.
Gary M. Kramer: How did you capture the awkward moments, such as Gemma’s meeting with Oscar’s dad in the parking lot?
Stephen Dunn: Awkwardness is a human experience and can tell us a lot about someone. There is discomfort in secrecy and lies. There are secrets being kept between characters, and when you have that lack of openness, those secrets bubble to the surface. I’m drawn to that kind of confrontation.
Gary M. Kramer: The film has themes of shame and pride. How did you want to depict these elements, and what was your purpose for portraying them as you did?
Stephen Dunn: Shame is a massive tool of oppression in this story. As a gay man, Oscar experiences shame when he learns about this hate crime and that he might be different or in danger as a result, so he represses himself. He associates sexuality with violence; he sees it as monstrous and is ashamed of it. The film is about him facing that shame in an attempt to overcome it. The people who use shame as a tool to oppress are often suffering shame themselves.
Gary M. Kramer: What points did you want to make about masculinity?
Stephen Dunn: Oscar is really suffering from the struggle of what masculinity should be. He’s a makeup artist trying to change his face, but the images he makes are gravitating to monstrous and macabre, and queer—but queer in the sense of being strange, not gay. That’s something of a big struggle for him. It’s not the most masculine career, makeup, but the images are frightening. It’s an absolute contrast to Wilder, who is so comfortable with his sexuality. He is what Oscar wishes he could be. It’s more that Oscar wants to be him than be with him. That’s why the film isn’t about two guys coming together, but a young man trying to figure out who he is and to destroy the toxicity and hate living inside him.
© 2016 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer