MPAA Rating: NR | Rating: ★★★
Release year: 2016
Genre: Coming-of-Age, Drama Director: Stephen Cone
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party focuses on the intersection and tension between two subcultures–evangelical Christianity and the LGBTQ community–without ever becoming a “Christian” film or “queer” film. The film raises questions about faith, identity, sexuality, and shame while walking a tight line between subtlety and didacticism. It portrays and critiques the evangelical subculture in ways which feel authentic, even cringe-worthy in its awkwardness.
The film centers on a pool party celebrating the birthday of Henry, a 17-year-old son of an evangelical megachurch pastor. Henry is gay (possibly bisexual), but his sexuality remains hidden beneath the veneer of “white suburban upper-middle class Christian pastor’s kid.” The various characters who join him and his family at the party all bring their own baggage and stories, mostly revolving around sexuality. In the world of the film, everyone is either sexually repressed or sexually clueless, and *everything* revolves around sex. Whether it’s the new pregnancy of the youth pastor’s wife, the impassioned conversation between church ladies about the troubles of human trafficking, the question of “modesty” regarding bathing suits, or the suicide attempt by a youth chaperone who may be gay, the question of sexual identity is ubiquitous, but often remains unspoken or voiced in hushed tones. Except when it isn’t; the opening and closing scenes bookend the movie with Henry sharing a bed with another character, speaking openly and bluntly about sex in ways he seems unable to in public.
The strength of the film lies in some affecting scenes and moments of confession and revelation between characters. A conversation between a mother and daughter in a car involves an apology from the mother for ever creating an atmosphere of shame about one’s body, as well as a divulgence of a sexual indiscretion. I found Henry’s mother, portrayed by Elizabeth Laidlaw, to be the most interesting and complex character, and Laidlaw gives a remarkable and affecting performance as a troubled pastor’s wife struggling to articulate her feelings of being trapped.
A powerful climactic scene involves the interruption of a very awkward churchy moment–the youth pastor attempts to give a poolside prayer and devotional, but the emergence of a despondent man covered in his own blood turns the entire moment on its head. This scene particularly stands out to me, as it feels like the inevitable collision between the two communities and traditions, between being evangelicalism and being gay, where all the tension finally comes to the surface and cannot be ignored any more. I think many of the characters feel trapped between these traditions, struggling to reconcile their evangelical beliefs and the ethos of the subculture with their sexual desires and feelings. It’s disheartening to see every Christian character portrayed as either oblivious and lacking in self-awareness, or repressed and guilty. Perhaps I’m misreading it, but the few openly gay or non-Christian characters at the party are the only ones who apparently live without hypocrisy. As such, the film feels one-sided in its approach. It would have been interesting to see a mutual conversion of sorts, where both evangelical and gay characters realize and learn new things–both positive and negative–about each other, and help shape and refine the other’s character. What’s clear is that every character–at least every character explored in some way–carries burdens of unspoken pain which they feel like need masking in light of their evangelical world.
Filmmaker Stephen Cone has created a plethora of engaging and authentic characters, and much of the film rings true. Still, some characters do feel like ciphers for particular messages or ideas, or simply aren’t explored much beyond being present at the party and a few lines (I’m thinking particularly of Gabe, Henry’s best friend, who plays a significant role in the opening scenes, then sort of disappears halfway through the film.). The Linklater- or Altman-esque conceit of the film–lots of characters mostly talking and lounging–creates for a quiet and subtle indie drama, with only a few explosive or overtly emotional moments. Overall, it’s a unique filmic approach which honors both the evangelical and LGBTQ cultures in its authentic portrayals, while ending up critiquing one culture far more than the other.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3703836/