It’s been a high-profile summer for Elliot Page. First, on June 6, he released his memoir, Pageboy. Then, just a few months later, he made his first appearance on the big screen in years with Close To You, which world premiered at this year’s TIFF.
Close To You, directed by Dominic Savage, is an intimate drama about a trans man, Sam, returning home to Coburg, Ontario for the first time in four years for a family birthday party. In the time he’s been away, he’s transitioned and established a new life for himself in Toronto, and he’s nervous to return to the place where he felt unseen and misunderstood for so many years. On the train ride there, he encounters an old high school friend, Katherine, played by Hillary Baack, with whom he shares a weighty past.
Page is pretty incredible in Close to You. Apart from a few scenes that focus solely on Katherine, he’s rarely off-screen, and he completely carries his scenes. His character Sam is fairly reserved, but through the nuances of Page’s performances, we can track how he’s holding up through the extended reunion, as he comes closer and closer to reaching a breaking point. There’s a nice contrast in his scenes with Baack as Katherine, where we see a more relaxed and open side of Sam. Baack also does good work with a character whose motivations I sometimes struggled to understand. Though I wasn’t always on board with her actions from a logical standpoint, she really sold the emotions. I do wish the characters had a bit more chemistry, given where the film goes with their relationship, but I enjoyed watching them both, separately and together.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t quite rise to meet these performances. In press and screening Q&As, Savage and Page have both discussed how they didn’t film this with a script. The two collaborated on a story outline which was shared with the actors and filmed through extended, improvised takes. Watching it, you can tell that it isn’t scripted, and I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment. If someone counted how many times a character says “You know?” or “I don’t know” in this movie, the final tally would be way into the double digits. If Close To You was improvised in pursuit of naturalism, then in one sense they succeeded. But part of the magic of movies is that a great script transcends regular everyday dialogue. Good writing makes characters sound like real people, while actually speaking much more eloquently than you or I ever would. It also helps establish plot, and stakes, and character efficiently and clearly.
My other issue with the film, even more than the writing (or lack thereof), was the lack of specific characterization when it came to Sam. Page clearly brought a lot of personal experience to this story. When Sam arrives at his parents’ home, he ping pongs around the house from room to room, having successive challenging conversations with parents, siblings, and significant others. All of these conversations feel like they could easily be variations on conversations Page has had himself. One particular scene, an interaction between Sam and his dad, hit particularly hard; the dialogue and performances really clicked and were incredibly moving. Yet at the same time, outside of these interactions, we know so little else about this character. We know he’s trans. We know he was a miserable kid. We hear him say, over and over, that he’s happy in Toronto, he’s got a job he likes, he’s feeling passionate about things again. But what’s his life in Toronto like? What is his job, which is mentioned many times but never explained? What’s he passionate about? We never really get to hear, but I want to know! I want to know and care about Sam as a full, interesting person, not just as a guy defined by his transition.
As I mentioned earlier, Close To You is the second highly personal project Page has released this year. I just happened to finish reading Pageboy a few weeks before I saw Close To You. In his memoir, Page writes about growing up, working in Hollywood, dating, his friends, his family, and more. He also talks about his experience transitioning, and the way his transness has impacted him through his life. It’s a really important piece of his story, but it’s not his whole story. Close to You is frustrating, because with just a few adjustments to the script – or story outline – it could have achieved the same thing. I wish the film had spent a little less time on repetitive, unfocused conversations about Sam’s transition, and a little more time on everything else.
In Close To You, Sam asks his family to try to see him as he fully, truly is. As a viewer, I wish the film made it a little easier to do so.