It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who paid attention over the past couple of decades that Elliot Page is an excellent actor. He’s an Oscar nominee, after all, and the star of a slew of striking projects, from Hard Candy and Juno to Inception and The Umbrella Academy. Since coming out as a trans man, he’s been more publicly known for his activism and producing efforts. Now, it seems as though he’s ready to get back in front of a camera and remind everyone that he’s a real talent. This new phase of his career fully kicks off with Close To You, an intimate family drama that Page has co-written and produced alongside British director Dominic Savage, who is best known for his naturalistic, heavily improvised TV dramas.
Page plays Sam, a young trans man who has hesitantly decided to return home to visit his family for his father’s birthday. He hasn’t seen them in five years, having moved to Toronto to start afresh and transition. Understandably, he is nervous, worried that, despite their best efforts to seem as welcome and accepting of his gender, they won’t truly make space for him in their hearts. Bumping into an old high school friend, Katherine (Hillary Baack) also opens up some very fresh wounds.
All of the dialogue in Close To You was improvised, meaning that the intense realism of the narrative has a real authenticity to it. The awkwardness is palpable, particularly as Sam goes home and his family try to act as though nothing has changed. The strongest moments come with the various ways he interacts with those he loves. His father admits to having been terrified that Sam’s teen depression could have led to suicide. His mother gets weepy every time she misgenders him, but still admits to seeing her son as ‘my little girl.’ One brother seems thrilled to see Sam stand up for himself for once in his life, while a prospective brother-in-law is callous, if not actively hateful (David Reale, who plays this role, does a great job in bringing some familiar stubbornness to a character who could have easily been a figure from a PSA on queer rights.)
Close To You is smart in its depiction of a family who ‘try their best’ but still aren’t good enough in understanding their trans child. They are portrayed with empathy, well-meaning but always a step removed (perhaps willingly) from getting it. The cozy confines of the family home soon feel oppressive, emphasized by sombre lighting and a camera that flits between people like it’s sneaking into somewhere it shouldn’t be (although the tinkly piano score does overplay its hand.) It allows these interactions to feel lived-in, not a series of lessons to be learned, especially when Sam tries to articulate his pain but struggles to get the words out.
It gives Page a hell of a lot to do, playing someone who has finally found a way to be happy after years of misery but fears one weekend with those who supposedly love him could spoil it all. He walks around with the hunched shoulders of someone ready to run away at a moment’s notice. Sam is a very tight knot, letting his guard down intermittently but ready to strengthen his emotional barricades as soon as possible. Sam tries to hide his irritation as his mother makes his transition struggles all about her. He is amply supported by an ensemble that includes Wendy Crewson, but it’s all clearly Page’s show. He’s baring his soul and it’s exciting to see him get a story he can really work with, even if Sam is ultimately a character we don’t get to know much about. Sure, we know his backstory, but who is this man as he exists now? Is it the point that he is swamped under by these expectations?
Sam’s growing closeness to Katherine has an awkward sweetness, with his teenage crush now a married mother of two who still lives in his hometown. Hillary Baack, who you might recognize from Sound of Metal and who looks a lot like Rebecca Ferguson throughout this film, is a good fit for Page. They tease out a romance built on mutual loneliness and a hunger for understanding, and have some moments of real intensity. This is a relationship between a queer trans man and a deaf woman that is stripped free of cliché, which in and of itself feels like a minor miracle. It doesn’t always fit into the wider narrative, however, especially by the third act when the family subplot is shoved aside in favour of it. We see one brief scene of Katherine with her husband, but little else, and by the end, the partnership strains credibility because she seems a tad unreal. The tenderness they’ve created together in the preceding two acts takes a big leap in the third, and it’s only through pure chemistry that it works. Such is the side-effect of an improvised film. Real life doesn’t adhere to structure, but sometimes we need it for the story to truly work.
There are dozens of strained family dramas playing at every film festival, and to put it bluntly, most of them just aren’t very good. They’re too concerned with screaming matches or creatively convenient character revelations to do anything unique or impactful with well-worn material. TIFF has certainly had its fair share of such films. For the most part, Close To You avoids this problem by finding room amid the nuances to reveal the abrasive, awkward, but not necessarily malice truths of family. The things it does well make you wish they could compensate for the stuff that doesn’t. The emotions are real but sometimes you need more than that.
Close To You had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It doesn’t currently have US distribution.