Portions of this piece were originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad
The Toronto International Film Festival closes shop on its 40th year tonight (imagine the stops they'll pull out for the 2025 festival!) and I'm probably on a plane as you're reading this. Given the breakneck pace of seeing so many movies there are more reviews to come from both Amir and Nathaniel (c'est moi). In other words TIFF will have something of a half life here at the blog and the Oscar charts must be updated Monday/Tuesday and so on. With the end of the big three fall fests tonight (Telluride, Venice, TIFF) it's officially on for Awards Season. Cue: marks, gunshot, running campaigning. The first prizes won't roll around until late November / early December of course.
And for many 2015 festival films winning distribution is the only thing worth campaigning for at this moment. If you're into LGBT cinema you should also check out the reviews of Desde Allá and Girls Lost. My favorite LGBT picture of the festival was Canada's own Closet Monster. More after the jump...
Have you ever watched that SyFy show Face Off where makeup artists compete against each other? It’s probably DVR’ed at the home of Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup) the title character in Closet Monster, a terrific feature debut from Canadian short filmmaker Stephen Dunn. Oscar is a semi-closeted teenager who wants to become a great makeup artist for horror and fantasy movies. This gives the title a smart poppy charge and double meaning.
This teenager's obsession with the grotesque traces back to childhood in the film’s first few scenes where we see him playing vampire games with and hearing scary bedtime stories from his attentive loving father (Aaron Abrams). Then one day, just off school grounds, the little boy witnesses an horrific gay-bashing of a teenager with a metal rod. He tells no one about the incident though he later watches it on the news with his father and asks, confused, why anyone would do that to someone? “Because he’s gay,” the father says bluntly and without empathy, essentially blaming the victim. (There goes the first scene’s impression that he’s a perfect father - more disillusionment to come). The event and its aftermath have clearly scarred Connor emotionally when the film really begins in the summer before he plans to study makeup in college. He’s virginal, lonely, he regularly flashes back to the trauma, and he’s grown more and more distant from his parents.
In lesser hands the creepy opening scenes and the makeup artist portion of the film would feel like gimmicky. But when is a gimmick not a gimmick? When form and function / style and substance are one! Closet Monster has a steady handle on its more gothic qualities. Most of the film is grounded in every day struggles, like first sexual encounters, unrequited crushes, and fights with parents that are relatable to any gay teen. But the director totally understands how stylized elements like monster makeup, hallucinated bloody weapons, and a talking hamster named “Buffy” (hilariously voiced by Isabella Rossellini) can tie in to and burst forth from character arcs, agitated emotions, and story beats. The movie is wholly itself, in other words, even as it cites other pop culture touchstones (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Or even other Canadian LGBT features. The love interest here is a curly headed smoldering blonde who looks, at first glance, EXACTLY like the curly headed smoldering blonde in Xavier Dolan's Imaginary Lovers. Though they are two different actors our frenzied web-clicking research reveals that they are actually brothers (Aliocha Schneider and Niels Schneider respectively) so it must have been a purposeful homage.
But who doesn't need touchstones along the way in their coming of age? In the movies, as in life, finding yourself is crucial. This movie knows what it is and beautifully illustrates Connor’s struggles towards becoming his full self. B+
Here’s hoping smart distributors pick it up. It’s the best English language teen LGBT film in recent years (though it has worthy competitors in other languages like Brazil’s The Way He Looks or Xavier Dolan’s Mommy) and deserves a chance to find its audience.
UPDATE 09/20: Closet Monster has just won "The Canadian Goose" the prize for Best Canadian Feature at TIFF.