"What I wanted to do was make a film that reflected the modern Newfoundland," says the writer-director Stephen Dunn, whose festival darling debut feature Closet Monster opens this week. "I love Newfoundland cinema—we have incredible filmmakers and voices—but I had never really seen a representation of what it's like for a young person right now to grow up in the city."
In Dunn's St. John's, young people plan to move to New York to be movie makeup artists, work summer jobs at home stores and attend druggy costume parties. Oscar (Connor Jessup) is a sensitive, creative soul whose mother abandoned him and whose father doesn't know what to do with him. His closet confidant is Buffy the hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini).
He's gay, but he can't deal with it after coming across a hate crime in progress and doing nothing to stop it. (His guilt is represented by a piece of rebar like the one used in the attack; it protudes at different times, bloodily, from his stomach and his pants.)
"I knew this was how I wanted to tell a story essentially about the internalized homophobia that develops out of being afraid of your sexuality," says Dunn from Toronto. "Of associating your sexuality with violence in this kind of way. And I wanted to tell a story about overcoming that fear and how to process it, through magic realism, through horror and also humour."
Closet Monster, which won Best Canadian Feature at TIFF last year, is a delicately balanced genre mash-up that also manages to avoid, deftly, the cliches of the evil movie parent. Oscar's dad Peter (Aaron Abrams) is absent and distant, hoping his son is straight but refusing to deal with the truth.
"You don't want a father who seems like a caricature of a villain or a caricature of a bigot," says Jessup. "The film's prologue"—in which Peter, not knowing Oscar has witnessed the gang-sodomy of a boy, says it's because "he's gay"—"offers a few functions: It offers foundational traumas, you could say, but you also see where Peter comes from and where his problems later in life come from. He's not doing good things, in some scenes especially he's not a good dad, but hopefully you emphasize with both positions. He's not too easy to write off."
"He really does love his son. He just has been hurt. His wife leaves, who he really loves, and he becomes a victim in his own right," says Dunn. "And as his son is growing up, he really needs his father, and his father just cannot be there for him."
This is the second high-profile gay role for Jessup, who plays a sexual assault victim on the series American Crime, but he reports that the statistic is no big deal. "I think the good thing is these stories are less exceptional than they used to be," he says. "I don't mean the quality—I mean the fact that they exist."
opens Friday, July 22 at Cineplex Park Lane
See Movie Times, page 31