Sam (Elliot Page) has been dreading this day for weeks, maybe entire years: The young trans man is heading home for a long-delayed family visit, back to the sleepy Canadian suburb he fled years earlier, this time more fully himself than ever, even if his own flesh and blood are — at least, he suspects — loathe to fully accept him as he is. And who is he?
In “Close to You,” we eventually learn that Sam is on a delayed calendar, stunted by the years he spent struggling before his somewhat recent transition, though crisper details are harder to come by. At one point, he mentions off-handedly that he graduated high school nearly twenty years ago (Page turned 36 a few weeks after production on the film wrapped), but he’s living a life closer to that of someone who just graduated. He lives in a friend’s house (he has his own room, a detail his family has spun out to mean he only lives in the room, eating off a hot plate or something equally as sad), he’s finding his footing in a new-ish job, and he’s dating around (as Sam tells it, he’s enjoying being slutty).
We glean even scanter details about what Sam’s life was like pre-transition, just that he was still living at home and was so sad that his father was perpetually worried his child was going to kill himself at any moment. To say this post-transition visit home is fraught is an understatement. It’s everything.
Sam’s discomfort with what is to come is clear from the start — though early moments with his roommate before he sets out on the trip from their house in Toronto seem less a product of the character’s emotional state and more of stilted writing and a lack of on-screen chemistry between the pair — though the full heft behind that feeling takes longer to reveal. Sam worries that his family, while mostly outwardly accepting of him, are really just waiting to be congratulated for that acceptance, for their own pain (over his life) to be lauded. And Sam is not entirely wrong, though the shifting dynamics of Sam’s family eventually serve as the film’s most thrilling element.
Directed and co-written by Dominic Savage (who is in possession of a truly varied resume: he’s directed everything from the Gemma Arterton vehicle “The Escape” to Jessie Ware’s “Remember Where You Are” music video, though certain people will always remember him as Young Bullingdon in “Barry Lyndon”), there’s clearly a level of closeness and respect between Savage and Page. How else — why else — would Page be willing to get so vulnerable for the project, which sees him slipping inside a character that many viewers will likely accept as a Page stand-in (surely, there are similarities between Page and Sam, but to think Page is only capable of telling his story disrespects his years of artistry and work).
Soon enough, Sam is on the train to his hometown, where he’s shocked to discover his high school best friend Katherine (the wonderful deaf actress Hillary Baack), sitting just one row away from him. Sam may have been struggling to prepare himself for the family reunion, but it’s the one with Katherine that soon consumes him. While Page and Baack are believable — even lovely — as former friends navigating the weight of their shared history, as “Close to You” attempts to make their bond the center of the story, everything suffers.
Savage and Page eventually bisect “Close to You” into two distinct chapters, one in which Sam heads home to his family, and a later one that sees him again reunited with Katherine, searching for more. Only one of these chapters feels deserving of Page’s tremendous vulnerability, while the other feels like a betrayal of the very themes that set the rest of the film apart. A tinkling, overly dramatic score does little to pump up the actual drama of the film — mostly, it feels cheap and manipulative, something the film avoids in its best moments — while Catherine Lutes’ swirling cinematography keeps us constantly on the wrong foot, and occasional moments in which she focuses on nothing of import rankle.
While we know little about Sam, we do know that, as part of his transition, he’s made it a priority to embrace what feels right for him, what feels good. That’s a strong theme for this sort of story, and when that concept pushes Sam to really hit back at his family (after a heart-in-throat fight with one of his sister’s boyfriends, a real “I’m just asking questions!” asshole, that will feel all too familiar to many queer viewers, one of the best and most upsetting sequences in the film), it’s difficult to argue with his reasoning.
Why should Sam have to “rise above” everyday transphobia, as his father asks him to? Why should he have to share a meal with someone who thinks it’s “political” when Sam shares his preferred name? Why should he have to grin and bear it when some familial interloper sniffs at Sam’s transition as a temporary fade?
It’s with that in mind, and with a serious fire in his belly, that Sam opts to re-approach Katherine, heading to the small cafe where she works on his way out of town. Why shouldn’t Sam ask for what he wants? And while that idea works wonders within the confines of Sam’s family struggles, reoriented into this undercooked relationship with Katherine, it never clicks. Still worse: It reduces Katherine to an object, a fixation, a dream, and not a whole person. What does Katherine want? She’ll tell Sam just that by the end of the film, but nothing we’ve seen before that plain-faced admission backs up her words.
Everyone should be able to choose what feels best for them, what makes them feel closer to themselves and others, but not every distance can be bridged by good intentions alone. Sometimes, we need more than an open heart, we need an honest one, too. “Close to You” is rife with real emotion, but the gap between vulnerability and meaning keeps everyone at arm’s length.
“Close to You” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.