I think it’s safe to say that audiences go into a movie hoping for something that feels new, exciting, fresh—original. Of all the buzz words in art, one of the best to hear is, “original”. That’s because originality is the opposite of derivative. In fact, they’re often considered two ends of an artistic spectrum. The beginner, knowing little, often imitates since imitation is the best way to learn. Knowledge of craft eventually leads to a departure from imitation, moving beyond and into the realm of the original.
But that romantic notion of a purely immaculate concept is absolutely wrong. For example, humans didn’t just come up with an original design for a plane. They spent hundreds of years studying the flight mechanics of birds and insects, building generations of research and experimentation, until gliders were a thing. As the 19th century turned into the 20th century, control was still a major issue no one seemed to be able to solve. Leave it to the Wright Brothers to come up with an “original” solution derived from their years of building bicycles.
The key to originality is synthesis, a fusing together of disparate concepts into a new totality. We often don’t see all the iterations that lead up to the final form, which is why the myth of the original exists. Writer/director Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster is a wonderful example of synthesis leading to the realm of new, exciting, and fresh, the realm of the original.
There are four major components to this broth that makes Closest Monster the powerful venture that it is.
As our basis, we have the standard coming-of-age story. A teenager, in this case, Oscar (Connor Jessup), is nearing the end of childhood and heading into the first phase of adulthood. This is like designing a car with four wheels. It’s your foundation.
The next component is the closeted-sexuality story. This journey could be done in any scenario. American Beauty is an example of repressed sexual yearnings and what those urges cause us to do. In that movie, every character is coming to understand a sexual desire that doesn’t fit in with what they expect from themselves or what they think others expect from them. Kevin Spacey’s character longs for the teenage friend of his daughter. Annette Bening cheats on Kevin Spacey with her business rival. And more I could describe but would ruin the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
So Closet Monster uses the closeted-sexuality story with the coming-of-age story, a common enough combination in LGBT cinema.
The third component adds our first original aspect to this base dynamic. Closest Monster uses surreal and fantastic elements to turn this normal world into one with mysteries. There’s a talking hamster (Isabella Rossellini). There’s tales and imagery related to vampires. We and Oscar witness a savage hate crime that ends with a queer youth in paralysis. Oscar’s passion is horror makeup, so throughout the movie we see him dress his friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) in various costumes. Oscar’s body of work is an album filled with nightmare imagery.
That kind of grafting of the fantastic onto the normal might seemed forced, but what gives it power is this fourth component. Closest Monster is essentially a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend of a young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone to become king of England.
Oscar plays the role of Arthur. His crush, Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), acts as Merlin. All the fantastic elements are reminiscent of the magic and anthropomorphized animals present in T.H. White’s and Walt Disney’s tellings of The Sword in the Stone. Oscar’s complicated relationships with his mom (Joanne Kelly) and dad (Aaron Abrams) are like Arthur’s relationship with his “family” Sir Ector and Kay. The crazy rave costume party Oscar ends up at? That’s like Arthur being turned into a hawk and ending up at the house of the witch Mim. Oscar’s moment of standing up to his father directly ties to the drawing of the sword from the stone. What a flood of emotion that was! I was so impressed and overwhelmed by that moment I wanted to applaud but could barely breathe.
This means we have the collision of two familiar combinations. Combination one being the closeted-sexuality-coming-of-age story. Combination two being modern-retelling-of-a-historically-popular-story. What you get is a movie that’s left many audiences and critics in a state of euphoria, overjoyed at encountering something so new, exciting, and fresh. Nice job, Stephen.