We first see Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) on the eve of his seventeenth birthday having a sleepover with Gabe (Joe Keery), a best friend. They’re two handsome young men talking about girls, though it’s clear Henry has unrequited and unspoken feelings for Gabe. “What would you do if she was here?” Henry asks, getting his buddy to describe a sexy fantasy, deriving far more pleasure from the boy speaking than the images he’s conjuring. After flushed with adolescent urges jerked around, Gabe, unaware of his friend’s crush, turns and recommends he try listening to more Christian rock. Then Henry prays before falling asleep. Immediately Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party sets itself up to sit squarely in liminal spaces, in the quiet compromises and contradictions in its characters lives. And yet it does so without judging or condescending. Here’s a wholly emphatic, beautifully contained drama about Christianity and sexuality that doesn’t fall into easy moralizing or obvious stereotypes. It’s too quiet and tender to hit any loud false notes.
Writer-director Stephen Cone views his characters through clear, compassionate eyes, creating tangles of identity that are believably drawn and subtly explored over the course of a suburban pool party. Henry and his parents, mother (Elizabeth Laidlaw) and pastor father (Pat Healy), have invited some people from their megachurch to join a few worldlier high school friends at his birthday party. His older sister (Nina Ganet), home from college for the big day, has a pal or two on the way as well. It’s an interesting mix of people, a variety of characters with various beliefs and personalities casually hanging out in the backyard, eating, swimming, dancing, and so on. Cone floats through various conversations, finding everyone has their own ideas about appropriateness (of bathing suits, music, wine, teaching evolution), but quietly strain to keep the good times rolling, the sense of community warm and supportive. The characters are treated with remarkable nuance, each with their own tensions between repression and expression, currents of unspoken desire and pain.
Cone maps out the relationships amongst the characters with low-key Altman-esque flair. There are youth group kids and secular teens, some awkwardly in between (Daniel Kyri), and adult congregants both older (Meg Thalken, Francis Guinan) and young (Kelly O’Sullivan, Travis A. Knight). There’s some talk about politics and religion, fleeting and glancing references to sex, but it bubbles naturally out of softly coded conversations. Whether a closeted gay kid quietly wrestling with a crush, a student at a Christian college struggling with feelings of spiritual lapse, a middle-aged woman torn about the state of society (“You aren’t going Democrat on us, are you?”), or a mother softly nursing a strained marriage, these are real people subtly feeling out those around them, looking for likeminded compatriots. They just want someone to understand them, to connect with them without judgment. Cone treats cultural tensions and pressures as simply normal, and the tincture of gentle melodrama simmering underneath is humane.
It’s a movie that avoids broad satire and easy targets, instead treating faith seriously and finding a sympathetic lens through which to view people with perfectly natural secrets held in: attractions, doubts, vices. Some of these are slowly teased out in scenes of intimate one-on-one confessions and revelations. Others remain buried, flickering in the faces of the talented cast, but remaining unsaid. The camera is as fluid as identity, floating through varying combinations and groupings of characters, allowing their subtle differences to bounce off each other and reveal new shadings and aspects to personalities. Hardly anyone – aside from one tortured young man who threatens to become an obvious metaphor – is exactly who you’d think they are. Cone allows the characters room to breathe and develop, for us to discover new complexities as the film goes along. The uniformly excellent ensemble generates the feeling of a real party, full of criss-crossing communication, half-buried grievances, and little shifts in behavior depending on who is around.
A generous film, each person allowed a revealing moment of some sort (suppressed impulses) or another (throwaway lines), it nonetheless revolves around Henry. Doman makes an impressive debut, playing a good kid whose religious upbringing leaves him not quite ready to speak his truth out loud, but cautiously signaling his desire to act on his desires. He’s cute and charming, engaged in a variety of interests (like podcasts, records, and Gregg Araki movies), and it’s easy to see why he’s so loved by his friends and family. But Cone’s screenplay resists easy dichotomies and culture clash conflict. It’s warm and kindhearted, allowing his Christ-centered family to be genuine and nurturing, and his sexual curiosities natural and sweet. Both aspects of Henry’s life have a valuable place in his growth. The film is lit with sparks of compassion for each character, meeting them where they are on their journeys. “You’re always becoming,” Henry’s mother says at one point, confiding in her daughter about the difficulties of adulthood. “You never actually arrive.”
With a lovely pulsing soundtrack and bright imagery, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party captures a dreamily full summer night – the kind that stretches out before you with possibility and incident – spiked with the seriousness of adolescence – in which every moment is lent outsized weight. It doesn’t build to artificial crisis or loud farce. It develops patiently into modest and moving loose ends, grasping at the happy endings of small steps and cautiously evolving relationships. Cone, whose films are frequently about performance growing out of and informing interior conflict (In Memoriam finds a man obsessed with a news item driven to research and reenact it; The Wise Kids is set around an Easter pageant, while Black Box is with a theater group), here finds an intergenerational gathering of people, all wrestling the person, the identity they try to present, softly calibrating their moral compasses between their beliefs and their desires. There’s no grand coming out parties to be found in this film, but a subtler, quieter, achingly sensitive intimacy of expression and connection. This is a special movie.