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'Closet Monster' Is a Gay Coming-of-Age Tale with a Canadian Sense of Humour

Stephen Dunn's latest film delves into decidedly heavy topics—family violence, divorce, gay bashing, and coming out—with a light touch.

by Hugh Ryan
13 September 2015, 4:29am

Canadian director Stephen Dunn's feature-length debut, the gay coming-of-age story Closet Monster, offers a light touch on decidedly heavy topics, including family violence, divorce, gay bashing, and coming out. It's a very Canadian film—with a dry sense of humor that crops up at unexpected moments, Closet Monster manages to be quiet without being somber, serious without ever crossing into melodrama.

The film opens with protagonist Oscar Madly (Falling Skies' Connor Jessup) witnessing a brutal gay bashing as a small child, right at the same time his parents get divorced. Fast forward about ten years, and Oscar is a sexually confused teen, living with his at-times violent father and his hamster Buffy (voiced by the incomparable Isabella Rossellini, who has the biggest laugh lines of the film). Closet Monster plays with familiar coming-out tropes, like the desire to run away to the big city and the sudden appearance of a sensual yet sexually ambiguous stranger. But it takes surprising turns, becoming more a story about reunification and claiming one's place than about either escape or romance.

Closet Monster had its world premiere earlier this week at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where Dunn was previously awarded the Best Live Action Film in the student showcase (for Life Doesn't Frighten Me in 2012), and the RBC International Emerging Filmmaker award for his 2010 short, Swallowed. VICE caught up with Dunn to talk about the inspiration behind Closet Monster and what Dunn is cooking up with his new project, Pop-Up Porno.

VICE: The film feels very personal. Is it?
Stephen Dunn: It's inspired by my childhood growing up as a gay teenager in Newfoundland. When I was a kid there was a series of horrible gay hate crimes that happened in the city. The most violent one happened in the graveyard behind my school, where this kid was literally sodomized with a branch and then he killed himself two years later. It was really fucking powerful and disturbing and devastating for the islands, because Newfoundland is a really safe place. People were shocked.

That crime had a strong impact on me because I didn't know I was gay, I was too young to really know, but I knew I was different and I felt like I was in danger. I had an ulcer that poked its head up every morning when I was going to school in junior high. So the film is about my frustration with essentially being afraid of yourself. But it's very light, because Newfoundlanders, we deal with grief and pain and trauma through humor. That's the only way to get by.

I don't want to give too much away, but I think it's really interesting that the film isn't, in the end, about escape.
I'm by no means urging people to not move away, because travel is really important for self-growth. It's an easy solution, but for me it's too easy. I went back and forth for a while between Newfoundland and Toronto, and ultimately I did move. But as soon as I did, I realized how important Newfoundland is to me, and the distance only made me want to go back more. It's always going to be a huge part of me.

It's too simple a solution to just say, "Move away and all your problems will go away." Because that's not necessarily true. I wanted to switch the focus away from moving out of your small town, to getting your own independence. That doesn't necessarily mean having to leave your history behind. It's about creating your own world, no matter where that is. I have a lot of friends who haven't left Newfoundland, and I think it's judgmental of me to say you should leave. I don't think that's true. I think people should be staying.

Why is that?
Too many Newfoundlanders are leaving the island. My next film, What Waits for Them in Darkness, is essentially about that, the Newfoundland resettlement. It's this period that began in the 60s, after Newfoundland joined Canada. There were 50,000 people who lived on smaller islands around the coast. It was too expensive to get running water, electricity, education, and healthcare to them, so the government forced these people to move. But they didn't give them enough money to do it. So they were forced to drag their houses across the Atlantic Ocean and relocate on the mainland.

And it's continuing to happen. The younger people are moving to St. Johns, and the people in St. Johns are moving to Toronto or Vancouver, and everyone is slowly leaving. I feel like that is such a fucking shame. Because Newfoundland is so unique. It has a distinct cultural heritage that is unlike anything in North America.

If folks can't make it to TIFF to check out Closet Monster, is there something of yours they can watch online?
Pop-Up Porno! It's a series of shorts about online dating sexual experiences, told through these raunchy, playful pop-up books. I wanted to talk about people's experiences as a way of normalizing them. But it's not just a goofy funny series about online hookups. It is that, but it's also about real human experiences derived from these digital hookups. These experiences people are having can be really quite powerful.

There are three out now, but the series is interactive. Our content is going to be created by the viewers watching it. Each film ends with a link that brings people to popupporno.org, where they can either phone in and leave a voicemail, or send in an email with their story.

Follow Hugh Ryan on Twitter.