An aimless queer boy, Oscar (Jack Fulton as a child and Connor Jessup as a teen), comes of age with the help of his somewhat imaginary talking hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) in writer-director Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster. The film is essentially a tale of failed recovery from a traumatic childhood during which Oscar’s father, Peter (Aaron Abrams), seemed to only love a manlier fantasy of his son that never existed and his mother, Brin (Joanne Kelly), as she abruptly left the household, told Oscar, “I’m not leaving you, okay? You’ll be with me every second week.” Feeling abandoned and alienated, Oscar grows up to be a repressed but creative teenager able to tolerate life by nurturing dreams of becoming a special-effects make-up artist, fawning over his enigmatic male co-worker, Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), and hanging out with Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), his fag hag of sorts.
The question of kinship permeates the film as Oscar finds himself consistently wounded by those who’re supposed to be his family and cherished by those who seem connected to him only through the ingenious strangeness of misfits. As such, Gemma becomes Oscar’s muse, the fleshly embodiment of a mother whose absence is staunched by the reassuring presence of a furry hat she left behind before leaving the family home and that his father refuses to give back. Oscar photographs Gemma, paints her face, creates prosthetics for her, and Photoshops her portraits to perfection. In Wilder, though, he finds a different kind of muse. Unable to ever read his sexual orientation, Oscar bathes in the platonic pleasures of never knowing if Wilder desires him back, a clever strategy to never have to recuperate from direct rejection.
Apart from some uninspired dialogue, especially in scenes featuring Oscar’s family, Closet Monster is a charming mix between a Gregg Araki fable where characters’ desires necessarily exceed categorization and a Xavier Dolan film minus the gratuitous visual hysteria. Dunn handles the film with sincerity and loyalty to his main character’s unnamable struggles, delicately inserting poetic digressions to convey Oscar’s emotional chaos. At various moments, it’s impossible to distinguish Oscar’s impression of the world around him from reality itself. A kiss becomes a beautiful exchange of drool interspersed with imagery of waterfalls and a fit of rage turns into a montage of Oscar’s history of not having been loved by his father; appeasing memories of being swung by paternal arms quickly give way to nightmares about being impaled by phallic iron bars. But these experimental sequences only make the film’s insistence on also sticking to traditional narrative conventions appear all the more unnecessary. It’s when Dunn dares to inhabit the how and not the what of queerness that Closet Monster feels authentic and deliciously strange.