Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Stephen Cone. Starring Cole Doman, Pat Healy, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Joe Keery, Daniel Kyri, and Nina Ganet.
I did not grow up in a fundamentalist home. Religious home, certainly, but by no stretch could my parents or church community be called fundamentalist. Over the years, I have had enough occasional run-ins with fundamentalist Catholics that I could appreciate the critique of misguided Catholic fundamentalism in the recent Stations of the Cross. Evangelical fundamentalism, however, is something that I’ve only heard about through reading accounts of people who grew up in such a culture.
I mention this because it seems to me that some familiarity with Evangelical fundamentalism is essential to fully appreciate Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. As someone with very limited knowledge of such a culture, I cannot speak to the accuracy of the portrayal in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party or even if the culture is totally fundamentalist, and thus I feel that my opinion regarding this film should probably be taken with some grain of salt.
That disclaimer aside, there were several aspects of the culture depicted in this film that I found interesting but also unbelievable. For instance, would the most conservative, religious Christian girl really wear the most revealing bikini at the pool party? Do conservative Christians who abhor homosexuality really see no problem whatsoever with masturbation or objectifying women as objects to fantasize over? And what adult (Christian or not) brings wine to a high school birthday party, especially when that party is for the pastor’s kid, even if the wine is just for the adults?
I am aware that there is a plot-related reason for all those incidents, but I still found them unbelievable and consequently distracting.
The basic premise of the film is that Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) is celebrating his seventeenth birthday with a pool party thrown by his parents, during which he comes to term with his same sex attraction for one of his school friends. There’s a little bit of clash at the party between Henry’s secular school friends and his highly religious church friends, but most of the focus seems to be on the other characters: Henry’s best friend Gabe (Joe Keery) who desperately wants to get laid, Henry’s older sister Autumn (Nina Ganet) who’s home from college and struggling with doubts about how to apply her faith to her adult life, their mother who stands alone upset over something, an older family friend who believes the immodesty on display by the pool leads to sex-trafficking, her husband who is overly eager to drink the aforementioned wine, the troubled Bible camp advisor who may be gay, and another Bible camp advisor who along with his pregnant wife seems blissfully unaware of the tension brewing.
As can be seen, there are a lot of characters, and for an eighty minute movie, there are too many. I understand that many of these characters are suffering some sort of crisis, but to be dropped into the middle of their struggles with only a line or two of dialogue telling us the source of their troubles instead of showing us makes it difficult to fully appreciate the damage being wrought in this community.
Writer/director Stephen Cone is acutely aware of the harm that can result from believing the body is not a temple of the Holy Spirit, but instead something dirty to be ashamed of. The focus on the swimsuit clad actors drives the tension of that theme home strongly. Less strong is the critique of fundamentalist attitudes toward homosexuality, because other than four or five brief scenes that theme really isn’t discussed, and when it’s discussed the complex range of attitudes seemed grossly oversimplified.
One thing I really appreciated is that the teens’ dialogue is as unsophisticated as teenage discussion normally is, and the young actors inhabit their roles naturally and convincingly. Also, as a director, Cone can frame a scene with clarity and focus. I just wish his concise script had had that same clarity and focus.
Content Advisory: Quasi-explicit sexual banter between high school boys accompanied by masturbation, a fleeting sex scene between young adults, self harm inflicted by a razor, and some vulgar language.
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: C+