Dominic Savage’s work tends to focus on people, usually women, facing some form of disruptive challenge to their everyday life, specific and stressful and never anything but utterly believable. He drew out Gemma Arterton’s greatest performance in 2017’s Toronto premiere The Escape as a deeply unsettled woman wanting out of her responsibilities as wife and mother. His Channel 4 anthology series I Am… has introduced a range of characters at an intersection, from a devastating Vicky McClure grappling with her partner’s emotional abuse to recent Bafta winner Kate Winslet as a mother struggling with a daughter crippled by social media addiction. His preference for often mundane naturalism, with dialogue usually improvised, has teased out grounded, unshowy performances and unusual, instinctive choices from stars often not as accustomed to such free rein.
His Midas touch has now reached out toward Elliot Page, an actor who was once ubiquitous in films such as Juno, Inception, Hard Candy and Drew Barrymore’s sadly under-seen Whip It, but who has been absent from the big screen since 2017. His off-screen transition was brought on-screen in Netflix fantasy series The Umbrella Academy, one of the streamer’s biggest hits, but outside of that, we’ve seen very little of him as a mature actor. With the release of his memoir Pageboy, giving us insight into the Page we didn’t really know at the height of fame, arrives another form of catharsis. Canadian drama Close to You, made in relative secret earlier this year, is built from a story co-crafted by Savage and Page but features large amounts of improvisation, for better or worse.
Page plays Sam, a man living in Toronto, preparing for a trip that he doesn’t really want to take. It’s his father’s birthday and he’s expected back for the first time in four years, the first time he’s going home since his transition. Having found himself accepted, finding a peace he’d thought previously unattainable in his new life, the journey back to his small hometown carries a heaviness and when he bumps into an old high school friend (Page’s The East co-star Hillary Baack) on the train, he’s torn between the good and the bad memories of his youth. Like Sam, the film is also torn, between the ratcheting tension of the family home he’s returning to and a reignited romance with the one that got away and it’s a tough balance to perfect. Because as full as the scenes are of Sam at home, handling how to be his authentic self in a place and within a dynamic that never truly allowed him to be, the scenes of him with his old friend are equally empty, sunk by limited chemistry, meandering dialogue and an over-reliance on a shared history we’re too unaware of to care about.
Trusting actors to improvise much of their own dialogue is a risk that may have paid off for Savage before and it certainly pays off in certain scenes here but when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t. While some of his performers, especially Page, are able to make the process feel effortless, others visibly struggle and make what should feel like a realistic drama feel more like an actors workshop. Page’s closeness to the material brings out some of the film’s most impactful scenes, understanding the unease that many LGBTQ+ people feel around family members, as well-meaning and liberal as they might be (the film avoids an unsubtle clash with right-leaning relatives) and in situations where no amount of niceties can make one feel like less of an outsider. There are small, difficult moments as he tries to softly counsel relatives through a situation that’s far harder for him before things finally explode in a scene that feels a little too orchestrated to feel believable. Dialogue goes from understated to overblown and abruptly the film then shifts its entire focus back to Sam’s bland romance, limping its way to the end.
There’s a fascinating character here on a journey that’s dramatically alluring and perhaps condensed into Savage’s more forgiving hour-long I Am… format, there could have been something tighter and more effective. But as a movie, Close to You feels too unfocused, a major win and a welcome return for Page yet an opportunity squandered.