Every once in a while a film comes along that feels like you’re witnessing a discovery. With Stephen Dunn’s brilliant feature film debut Closet Monster, an exciting and dynamic new directorial voice has been born. Wrapped in a coming-of-age tale, this film explores the impact of the defining moments of our lives and how they affect who we are as a person, while teaching us to stand up for our personal truths and getting what we want out of life. This is an emotional story of a teenager coming to terms with his homosexuality while battling up against his abusive father.

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As a young boy, Oscar (Connor Jessup, previously selected as a TIFF Rising Star) witnesses a brutal hate crime while at the same time experiencing his parents’ divorce. These events in his life contribute to how he grows up and sees himself. As he ages, his alcoholic and homophobic father makes it clear he doesn’t want his son to be gay. It becomes a hostile environment for Oscar and as he begins to understand that he is in fact gay, he must struggle with the enduring demons placed on his psyche as a young child. He struggles to accept himself out of fear. His creative ambition is driving him to reach for a life outside his small town, yearning for independence and stability. When Oscar meets an alluring boy named Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) at his job, he allows temptations to overtake him and he begins to finally deal with his sexuality and realize that life doesn’t always turn out how you dream.

Conner Jessup’s Oscar is a troubled and mature teenager. It is easy to see that he understood the heart of what this film is about and was able to play this character with a nuanced sensitivity that shines brightly on the screen. This is certainly not the last we’ve seen of this wonderful up and coming actor.

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The editing and original score of the film are both key components that have been executed with maximum emotional impact. These elements are combined to lead the viewer to an explosive and potent emotional climax that completely enthrals.

There is some room for improvement in the film. The abusive father character should have been pushed farther to create a better defined conflict. We get small allusions to what their relationship is like but it doesn’t come across as a desperate enough situation for Oscar.

It is evident right from the beginning that this is an incredibly personal film for the director, one that he is passionate about that needed to be made. Drawing on traits from his own life growing up gay in a small community and using an actual hate crime as the basis for the central character-defining moment in the film, it’s easy for the viewer to emotionally identify with the characters and have an empathetic understanding of their circumstances. For anyone who may have struggled with their own sexuality at any point in their life, they will find themselves in Oscar.

The world premiere screening of this film was an emotional affair. With this being the director’s first feature, the audience’s overwhelmingly positive response was surely a surreal sigh of relief for Dunn. A standing ovation was given to the cast following the film when they took the stage for the Q&A portion of the event. Attempting to recall the inspirations for this film, whether they be personal or pulled from the headlines, it was evident the director needed to make this film for his own healing and that release was transferred to the audience. This is a small niche film with somewhat limited appeal but after doing the rounds at several more film festivals across Canada we can only hope that it finds an audience. Anyone who can even remotely relate to this subject matter will be rewarded with bold vision. This is a dazzling debut.

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