When writer and director Stephen Dunn attended junior high in his hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, a number of gay hate crimes coincided with his coming-of-age confusion about his sexuality. One crime was especially heinous.

“One in particular happened in the graveyard behind my school, behind Brother Rice, where a young man was sodomized with a branch and was paralyzed and left for dead,” remembers Dunn. “I didn’t know about my sexuality at that point, but I knew that I was different and I inherently felt like I was in danger. I felt a lot of self-hate and fear associated with my sexuality while I was growing up.”

Those memories and personal experiences were the inspiration for Closet Monster, Dunn’s first feature film that just celebrated its theatrical release in Toronto on July 15.

A unique and visceral experience to watch, the film stars Connor Jessup as Oscar Madly, a creative and sexually confused teenager who develops a fantasy world to deal with his isolation and turbulent coming-of-age journey.

Confronted with his parent’s divorce and bearing witness to a horrific gay hate crime during childhood, Oscar’s teen years find him continuing his consoling friendship with his talking hamster Buffy – voiced by Isabella Rossellini – and coming to terms with his homosexuality in the face of his father’s homophobia and emotional abuse.

There is no room for platitudes in Closet Monster. This is revelatory filmmaking drawn from a deep well of personal experience. The film forces us to confront our own existence in a rare way.

“I wanted to tell this particular story because I felt like it was really hard to discuss and articulate,” says Dunn.

The story is bravely and phenomenally articulated on screen. It hooked Dunn Best Atlantic Director and Best Atlantic Screenwriter at the 2015 Atlantic Film Festival and took home the prize for Best Canadian Feature at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Supporting Jessup’s stunning performance are Aaron Abrams and Joanne Kelly as Oscar’s father Peter Madly and mother Brin Madly, Sofia Banzhaf as Oscar’s best friend and creative confidant Gemma, and Aliocha Schneider as Wilder, the alluring and mysterious come-from-away who becomes Oscar’s object of desire.

“When I read the script for the first time, I didn’t know Stephen and I hadn’t seen any of his short films,” recalls Jessup. “Immediately, during the first few pages, I gained a very strong impression of Stephen’s personality – who he was as a person – through his writing, which is super rare in script form, so that immediately appealed to me.”

Jessup reveals that when he and Stephen first met, the 26-year-old filmmaker handed him a copy of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson’s verse novel Autobiography of Red.

“It’s also a coming-of-age story about a young man who is coming to terms with his sexuality, but who also might be some kind of mythological monster himself,” says Jessup.

This event makes sense when confronted with Closet Monster’s fantasy elements. As for having a talking hamster as a fellow cast member, Jessup had no qualms about it once he read the script.

“If you had pitched the movie to me as a coming-of-age movie with a talking hamster, I would have run as far away as I could, but that element is integrated so well that it was very impressive.”

Anybody who knows Dunn’s previous short films knows that fantasy elements form a significant and important element of his oeuvre. Apart from the talking hamster, Closet Monster also contains darker and more disturbing fantasy elements that involve Oscar’s witnessing of the hate crime and a steel rod, elements that play a vital and visually captivating role in Oscar’s journey towards self-realization.

“Throughout all my shorts and my work, I’ve always tended to explore internalized emotions that manifest into physical form,” says Dunn. “It’s just the way I wanted to tell this story.”

Now that Closet Monster is in theatres, Dunn and Jessup are eager to continue meeting audience members and gauging their connections with the film, something they enjoyed during the film’s successful festival run.

“During the screenings that I’ve been to, the response is almost overwhelming,” says Jessup. “People seem to connect with what Oscar has gone through.”

“I’ve travelled a lot with this film and been to about forty-five festivals and it’s incredible to see how different the reaction can be in different countries” says Dunn. “When we screened in South Korea, there was a line up of young queer kids who were pouring their hearts out. I’m very, very pleased with the reaction that we’ve been getting.”

Produced by Rhombus Media and Best Boy Entertainment with Elevation Pictures handling domestic distribution and Fortissimo Films handling international sales, Closet Monster is sure to be a Canadian classic and a film you won’t soon forget.

It hits St. John’s theatres this Friday, July 22, along with theatres in Halifax and Vancouver.

Enter Below to Win 1 of 5 Pairs of Tickets*

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* Note: These passes are ROEs, which means winners can use use them any time EXCEPT opening weekend. Which is this weekend.