Closet Monster

(Canada 2016)

I wish I could play Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” for Closet Monster‘s protagonist, Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup), because the lyrics say something he needs to hear: the answers you seek and the love that you need will never be found at home. Sigh.

When young Oscar (Jack Fulton) is a wee lad of maybe seven or eight, his parents give him a hamster (played by four different actors: Chunk, Mama, Blood Thirsty, and Buffy #1). The gift, it turns out, is intended to take the sting out of their explosive announcement: his mother (Joanne Kelly) is leaving his father, Peter (Aaron Abrams). It doesn’t take long to see why, as Peter is an oppressive loose cannon. Oscar stays with his father and quietly retreats into his own world where his new furry friend, Buffy, becomes his companion and has a way of expressing what Oscar is feeling (Isabella Rossellini, of all people, provides Buffy’s voice).

One afternoon after school, Oscar follows a group of older teenage boys into a cemetery. Unbeknownst to them, he watches from behind a tree as they barbarously attack another boy—presumably a gay one—with a rusty iron rod. Immediately after, Oscar notices his father is a toxic alpha male asshole. Determined to prevent something horrible from happening to him, he jumps into survival mode and starts doing “guy” things.

Cut to a decade later: Oscar (Jessup) is into creating monsters with makeup and prosthetics, practicing in his treehouse on his friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), an aspiring model who carries a torch for him. They both just finished high school. Oscar bides his time that summer working as a stockboy at a home improvement store while waiting for an acceptance letter from a school with a design program for cinematic special effects to which he’s applied. He’s completely beside himself when a new employee named Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) shows up and asks to borrow his work shirt. Wilder is cool, sexy, and has a way of transmitting ambiguous sexual signs—causing Oscar severe stomachaches and visions of that iron rod.

Writer and director Stephen Dunn’s first feature threw me for a loop, in a really good way. Closet Monster is packed with gay coming of age clichés, but it still stands on its own. Oscar’s homosexuality is more than incidental, but it’s no dark secret; Oscar knows he’s gay and he doesn’t seem to be ashamed of it, even if dealing with it is tricky. The cast here is excellent, particularly the exchanges between Jessup and Schneider (not to marginalize the other actors). Dunn exhibits a dinstinctive style both in how he tells his story and how he shows it. From a narrative standpoint, he concocts a compelling mix of comedy, teen drama, fantasy, horror, gore, and psychological intrigue. The tension between Oscar and Peter is palpable, simmering from a quiet friction to an all-out eruption.

Dunn’s visuals are even better: vivid, surreal imagery of iron rods popping out of Oscar and vomiting nuts and bolts into a sink, they indelibly illustrate what’s going on in his head. Peppered with retro electronica, I pick up a certain late ’80s/’90s vibe here; indeed, Dunn’s aesthetic reminds me of David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and to a lesser extent Anton Corbijn, all of whom started out doing music videos. Dunn’s sensibility is similar to another young director, Xander Robin (Are We Not Cats) (, though Dunn is not as dark. Closet Monster has a few shortcomings, but overall it gels nicely into a totally satisfying film.

90 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) B

Middle Man

(USA 2016)

“No price is too high to pay for a good laugh.”

—Fatty Arbuckle

Lenny Freeman (Jim O’Heir) is a wussy ageing milksop who quits his job as an accountant to pursue a career in standup comedy after his mother (Barbo K. Adler) dies. The problems with his plan are numerous. For one, his idea of comedy comes from old radio greats of the 1930s and 1940s—hardly cutting edge or relevant stuff. Further, Lenny has led a sheltered life with his mother. He’s naive. He has no confidence. He isn’t funny. He isn’t particularly perceptive: he doesn’t quite get it when, say, he’s being insulted or threatened. To make matters worse, he’s never even performed for an audience.

Driving from Peoria, Illinois, to Las Vegas in his mother’s 1950s Olds, Lenny picks up a shady hitchhiker (Andrew J. West)— aptly and cornily named “Hitch”—who claims to manage comedians and offers to get Lenny on the very TV show for which he’s on his way to an audition. They make a contract, and Hitch takes Lenny to The Yuck Stop, a desert roadside club in fictitious Lamb Bone, Nevada, to test his material at open mic night. Spoiler alert: Lenny sucks, and the rough crowd is vicious.

Somehow, the corpse of the nastiest heckler (Danny Belrose) is inside Lenny’s trunk in the morning. Lenny thinks he killed him and spends all day in the desert unsuccessfully attempting to dump the body. Hitch pushes Lenny—unglued and soaked in sweat and blood—back onto the Yuck Stop stage, where he confesses to the murder. The crowd takes it as schtick, and this time loves Lenny. Thus begins a killing spree that benefits Lenny’s act more and more with each murder.

Screenwriter and first time director Ned Crowley is onto a good idea with Middle Man, an exploration of selling one’s soul for the spotlight. He references the Coen Brothers, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, David Fincher’s Fight Club, and perhaps in a sense Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. I particularly love sick jokes and dark humor, and Crowley liberally applies both throughout. The execution here is uneven, though. The dialogue really shines, but some characters are disproportionately more interesting than others. Hitch’s motive is probably ambiguous on purpose, but it nagged me and got in the way of fully enjoying the film. Most unfortunately, main character Lenny gets old after awhile. Watching his confidence soar in a romantic subplot with his rival standup’s girlfriend, Grail (Anne Dudek), starts out well enough but soon fizzles badly.

Middle Man takes a decidedly sinister turn about 20 minutes before its ending, which is predictable and not as weird or harrowing as Crowley might have intended. Overall, though, this is a respectable debut that doesn’t take itself too seriously—that’s the most refreshing thing about it.

Screening followed by a live discussion with director Ned Crowley and actor Jim O’Heir.

104 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival