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TORONTO, Canada—Sam (Elliot Page) is coming back home for the first time in years. He’s nervous—he’s built up a new life in Toronto, but a return to Cobourg, a small town a couple hours from the big city, is a daunting prospect. Sam is not the person he once was: He’s transitioned, finally living the life he’s longed for.
On the train to his family’s home, he has a chance encounter with Katherine (Hillary Baack). Their meeting is intense and loaded with history. In high school, the two were inseparable, but Katherine hasn’t seen Sam since his transition, and probably a lot longer than that. The two fell out of touch, but they’re both overcome with emotion, barely able to speak to each other at first.
Their lives are very different now, as Katherine reveals to Sam that she’s married with two kids, and moved back to the town they grew up to settle into family life. Sam is single and happy that way, sharing a rented house with his friend in the city—but seeing Katherine again has woken feelings that have laid dormant for years.
Dominic Savage’s Close to You, which premiered Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival— finds Page in his first major film role since he announced his transition at the end of 2020. It’s a tender, intimate drama about one of the scariest things any person can do: presenting themselves to their family as their true, authentic self for the first time. Sam isn’t worried about being accepted as trans, but instead about the off-color comments and remarks people might make. Whoever said sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me was a liar.
Close to You isn’t just about a family reunion—it splits its time following the relationship between Sam and Katherine, who are dealing with unresolved feelings for one another. While the chemistry between Sam and Katherine is scintillating—from the moment they lay eyes on each other, you can feel their history—Katherine herself is something of an enigma. Their conversations are vague, talking about the past with the intimate shorthand of two people who’ve lived it. We, however, have not, and beyond general discussions of how much they were there for each other when they were younger, there’s not enough to really latch onto there.
It’s easy to understand what Sam wants from Katherine, but Katherine’s own motivations feel thinly drawn and underrealized, especially when compared to the detailed exploration of Sam’s family. That makes the film’s central romance feel a bit hollow—the performances resonate, but the entirely improvised dialogue struggles to get beyond the surface of their connection. Though Baack delivers an effective performance, her character feels like an idealization in Sam’s mind, rather than a fully fleshed-out person.
Sam too feels like a bit of a mystery—we don’t know what he does, who he’s friends with, or how he spends his time. But what we do clearly understand is that Sam, finally, is happy. Everything in his life is going the way he wants it, and he feels more confident and sure of himself than he ever has before.
Page delivers the best performance of his already impressive career, bringing forth a jaw-dropping vulnerability. Living authentically is one of those phrases that gets used a lot these days, but when Sam says it in the film, it feels layered with such joy, such truth, and such genuine calm that I got chills. Page gives so much of himself to Sam that, even though we don’t know the specifics of Sam’s life, it doesn’t matter—Page’s performance fills in the details beautifully. We spend so much time with Sam that it feels like we know him intimately.
The improvised dialogue is one of the film’s biggest strengths, while also its biggest drawback. The script consisted of nothing but direction, which allowed the actors to create their own dialogue. At times, then, scenes can feel overly obvious. For example, the way Sam explains at the top of the film that he’s nervous about seeing his family after nearly five years feels like he’s reading a plot summary.
But when it works, Close to You is brilliant. The family dynamic is so familiar. Sam’s return is met with an almost euphoric reaction from his family—everyone can’t wait to wrap their arms around the son (or brother) they haven’t seen in so long. Sam an his sister kindle a dynamic they both seem to have always wished they could have had, talking about romance and sex with such ease—you can imagine how they might have gossiped in their shared bedroom as kids.
None of Sam’s conversations are easy, and most of them wind up with him in tears. But they’re fascinating and insightful glances into the way this family exists. A conversation between Sam and his father is the best scene in the film, showcasing the pair’s complicated dynamic, featuring shocking revelations and a natural, lived-in familiarity that likely benefited from the actors having the opportunity to work on their dialogue together. When the film focuses on Sam’s return home, rather than the less-baked romantic storyline, it's exceptional.
At its best, Close to You beautifully captures the trans experience, and how challenging it can be to simply be happy and comfortable with yourself. After a fight, Sam’s mother tries to cobble the broken pieces of their relationship back together, saying over and over that family is the most important thing. “But family isn’t the most important thing,” Sam responds, and he’s right; there’s a lot more to life than seeking the validation of others. The truest, purest love comes from within, and that something Close to You expresses gorgeously.
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