A very ambitious and mostly successful independent feature from writer-director Stephen Cone, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is something like if The Graduate had been directed by Robert Altman and set against a megachurch backdrop. Cone wears his influences boldly.
The film takes place over the course of one day at the McMansion of a suburban pastor, who is throwing a pool party for his teen son Henry (Cole Doman). Doman is marvelously expressive as a kid who largely lives amidst repression. Henry, you see, is gay, something suspected by two of his (significantly non-church) friends, but by almost no one else. Meanwhile, the youth-group kids splashing about in the pool assert (or conceal) their own sexual identities in all sorts of complicated ways, while Cone’s camera weaves in and out of various conversations to give us an Altman-eye view of the proceedings.
The movie immerses us in the complications of sexuality right from its opening scene, in which an oddly angled shot reveals Henry waking up in his bed with a platonic male friend who has slept over. Their faces are resting on pillows as they look into the camera, talking to each other, but the screen is tilted so that the bed, not their faces, is sideways. Disorientation is at play here, as it is for so many of the characters in the movie.
Disorientation is at play here, as it is for so many of the characters in the movie.
As the day goes on and the film’s canvas expands, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party becomes less of a personal journey and more of a critique of a particular subculture. Almost every character we meet also, somewhat awkwardly, represents a viewpoint commonly held in conservative Christianity. At times, the movie feels as if it’s working from a checklist, likely born from Cone’s own experience (he’s the son of a Baptist preacher). An obsession with modesty? Check. Skepticism over evolution? Check. Being somewhat familiar with this subculture, I think Cone’s criticisms are certainly valid. But there are ways in which Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party isn’t much more nuanced than the fundamentalist milieu it’s portraying.
Still, the movie carves out a truly unique space in the gap that exists between agnostic Hollywood filmmaking and church-funded, faith-based indies. Cone brings great sensitivity to the dilemmas of religious teens who are struggling with sexuality, and he offers them something they likely, and ironically, don’t experience enough: grace. My favorite moment in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is fleeting, yet all the more effective for its delicacy. At one point the gathering in the pool seems to be taking an unsavory turn, and Henry’s mother (a wonderful Elizabeth Laidlaw) dives in with the kids — not to “correct” things, but simply to enjoy a swim. Her gesture turns what could have become a cesspool of suspicion into a place of community. At its best, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party does the same.