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Friday, June 21, 2024

Elliot Page’s Welcome Big-Screen Return

“Close to You” marks a reintroduction for Elliot Page, a screen presence at once warmly familiar and sharply redefined, finally established on his own terms. In his first film role since coming out as a trans man, the actor has evidently brought much of his own identity and experience to this sensitively observed story of a trans man cagily reunited with his family after a five-year period of estrangement. (In addition to producing the project, he shares a story-writing credit with director Dominic Savage.) But Page’s performance isn’t moving merely for whatever parallels it might hold to his life: Rather, it’s a reminder of what a deft and perceptive actor he can be, capable of both naked emotional candor and acidic wit — both assets to a script that sometimes errs on the side of caution.

British director Savage is known for his improvisatory collaborations with actors, which recently drew career-best work from Gemma Arterton in the 2017 feature “The Escape,” and extended to the TV project “I Am…,” a series of intimate standalone character portraits by the likes of Samantha Morton, Letitia Wright and a BAFTA-winning Kate Winslet. Crossing over to Canada to work with Page on his home turf, the director’s technique once again gives his star ample leeway to explore himself on screen, in the process capturing something that feels truthful, however fictionally constructed. That sense of raw integrity has stood the film in good stead on the festival circuit, attracting particular interest from LGBT-oriented programmers and distributors, since its buzzy Toronto premiere last fall, shortly after the publication of Page’s memoir “Pageboy.”

Dramatically, however, improv yields mixed rewards in “Close to You,” which bounces between scenes that are finely detailed in their examination of open prejudice and subtler microaggressions in the family sphere, and others that are more vaguely essayed, building relationships on backstories that don’t yet feel fully formed. From-the-gut acting, not just by Page but a fine ensemble of Canuck character players, carries the film across the line, though even at a modest 98 minutes, it could feel tighter.

A day-long timeframe gives us a limited sense of who Sam (Page) is outside the immediate drama surrounding him, though the actor’s alternately tense and square-shouldered body language conveys a man used to assuming different stances and faces depending on the company he’s in. We meet him, nervy and caustic, in the boho-chic Toronto apartment he shares with a roommate, clinging to his coffee mug as he warily contemplates his plans for the day ahead: a train ride to his sleepy hometown on Lake Ontario, where he is to join his extended family for his father’s birthday lunch. It’s a visit he’s been putting off for years. Though his ostensibly progressive parents and siblings have notionally accepted his chosen gender identity, he has never shaken the feeling that he’s an outsider in their presence. “It’s like I owe them so much,” he sighs — to him, their acceptance feels like a gesture.

Sure enough, the reunion begins amicably but never quite comfortably, the mood aptly set by DP Catherine Lutes’ frosty, dun-hued lensing of the family home’s low-lit, timber-heavy interiors. Sam’s mother Miriam (a wonderful Wendy Crewson) is eager to make up for lost time, offering effusive affection but trying too hard: When she absentmindedly uses the wrong pronouns, her apologies put Sam in the position of comforting her. Dad Jim (Peter Outerbridge) is more relaxed, content simply to see his once severely withdrawn child leading a productive, independent life; Sam’s older sisters are more passive-aggressive, almost reproachful in their persistent enquiries as to his happiness.

“You weren’t this worried about me when I was actually not okay,” Sam responds, in one of the film’s most cutting lines — a sentiment that lays the groundwork for a more heated familial dispute in response to the less politely disguised transphobia of his brother-in-law Paul (David Reale). This scene serves as the film’s centerpiece, bringing any number of latent conflicts collectively to the surface, though there is an air of contrivance, workshopping even, to its heavily pointed rhetoric.

Counteracting this tension is the separate, gentler subplot of Sam’s unexpected reconnection with former high-school BFF Katherine (Hillary Baack), now a married suburban mother with clear yearnings for something more. They meet by chance on the train from Toronto, later reuniting in town for a heart to heart. In contrast to the trickier tacit negotiations with his family, Katherine’s acceptance of his new identity is unquestioning and unconditional (“You look the same, just more you,” she tenderly observes), and realigned desire is stirred between them.

This tentative romance is poignant, but timidly approached: Katherine never comes fully into focus as a character outside her relationship to Sam, which itself is drawn in soft pastel strokes, while the sparse piano and sorrowful strings of the score (composed by Savage with Oliver Coates) is called on to fill in some emotional blanks. The stories of a brittle family fallout and a second-chance spark don’t entirely mesh together, though they afford Page a full spectrum of feeling to play: hard and soft, guarded and unbound, combative and seductive. For any viewers who have lost touch with the star, it’s a happy reacquaintance.

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