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TIFF23: Close To You Is Comforting But Cold

Courtesy of TIFF

From the minds of Dominic Savage and Elliot Page comes Close to You, a touching story about Sam (Elliot Page), a transgender man going to his hometown for the first time in five years to celebrate his father’s birthday. On the way, Sam runs into an old friend on the train, Catherine (Hillary Baack), and they are emotionally transported back to high school when their love for one another was confusing and intense. At Sam’s parents, his family struggles to cope with the new “rules” and their guilt.

Emotional. Unapologetically Canadian. Improvised in Dominic Savage’s way.

Premiering at TIFF on September 10th to an unfortunately less than full theatre, Close To You is a hidden gem: an imperfect film but moving nonetheless. Dominic Savage, yet again, delivers a sombre, raw and incredibly human story about family, love and loss.

Elliot Page and Hillary Baack have incredible chemistry, although their reconnection is meant to be the focus of the film’s premise. Close To You has much more powerful and nuanced performances from the supporting cast playing Sam’s family. Peter Outerbridge plays Jim, Sam’s father. His interpretation of becoming a parent to a trans adult was all about the instinct to protect your child and the fear of letting go when that child, an adult, finds happiness. Miriam (Wendy Crewson) is Sam’s mother, and while the father seems to pick up the new pronouns, Miriam is having a more challenging time processing the loss of her “little girl”. Aside from the parental anxiety on display, there’s also a wash of unconditional love throughout their interactions with Sam (Page).

At the Q&A following the film, Elliot Page expressed how the emphasis on his character’s move from Cobourg to Toronto and its effect on the family was a slight surprise. The film’s origin came from Savage and Page’s fascination with the concept of running into someone you used to know, used to love. Somehow, through the writing process, that idea was expanded and then again on set, as the actors who play Sam’s family become combative over his transition and his move, an exciting narrative arose focusing on this new apparent absence the family feels.

This evocative family dynamic steals the show from our long-lost romance. Even though Elliot Page and Hillary Baack play an interesting pair, the real groundbreaking story is in this family. If Page and Dominic Savage were just a little more daring, they may have been able to pull off a Canadian and Queer Family Stone.

Close To You’s improvised production meant actors were doing takes that took 20-50 minutes to get through. Elliot Page reportedly lost himself in the role in these moments. I do not doubt that the other actors stepped into someone else’s mind in these instances because the improvisation is very effective. Drama can sometimes become stilted and too written, too perfect, when the reality is fights are messy, and no one ultimately says what they mean or stays on topic long enough to get to the bottom of the issue. Under Dominic Savage’s unique direction, we see imperfect conversations that intertwine overlapping narratives and small facets of information that don’t quite add up to resolution or solidified history. Instead, we see a reflection of our conversations with family and how messy that can be.

Close To You was shot in Ontario winter, and the coldness comes across on camera. Even in the comforting moments tucked away where supportive love for Sam from his family shines through, this chilliness remains, adding to a melodramatic overtone the film mistakenly emphasizes. Unfortunately, overtly loud piano crescendos come over the speakers at odd moments. Once again, we, as the audience, may be meant to feel something more cathartic than we actually do. I think the post-production tone of this film is far too severe for the content and the character’s overarching narrative. There was a lightness in every conversation where history sat in, offering anecdotes and situational humour, a fun that colour and musical composition did not grasp.

Despite my disappointment in some creative choices, I did enjoy Close To You for the nuances it offered and the unique origin of the film. I also enjoyed watching Elliot Page be so relaxed in his role. There was a long time when everything he was in had a fringe element to his performance where he looked uncomfortable in his own skin. Now that’s gone, we get this easy, effortless performance that feels genuine. The storyline and premise ring awfully close to several chapters of his memoir “Pageboy”. Clearly, Close To You contains a multitude of meanings and symbolic release for Elliot Page’s newfound freedom as a man.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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