Friday, February 16, 2018

Stephen Cone | The Wise Kids

different ways of loving and believing
by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Cone (writer and director) The Wise Kids / 2011

Director Stephen Cone’s gentle tales, which tell of teenagers growing into maturity before the eyes of their elders, are, at heart, films of ideas; yet they don’t seem at all to preach, even though they are often located within tightly-knit religious, particularly Baptist, communities. Usually, when encountering any literary or cinematic work about true believers, the writers and directors take stands either for or against. But Cone has the grace and lightness of touch to let his characters speak for their own views, presenting a broad range of different viewpoints without demonizing and judging any of them. It is this director’s fairness (although he often does have a few very narrow-minded figures) that makes his films seem so magical. And even non-believers, such as I am, are attracted to his work.
      The other day I watched one of his early films, The Wise Kids, in two entire viewings over two days, and I realized just how subtly his “ideas” were presented. In this film three students one 
church organist and drama leader, and an older, perhaps lesbian woman, ostracized from her grandmother’s love while still living in her house, stand in for a wide range of viewpoints, while still all deeply embraced by the religious community in which they were raised.
       The most daring of them is the preacher’s daughter, Brea (Molly Kunz), who, as a senior in school, is suddenly beginning to question her religious teachings. As she puts it, to her best friend Tim (Tyler Ross), “We might have believed whatever our parents taught us.” In short, she is arguing that, in part, children are, in following their parent’s teachings, in some sense, brainwashed. And if they don’t later begin questioning those beliefs they will be again imposed on their own children as well. Clearly that is the case with their classmate, Laura (Allison Torem), an overeager believer who prays to God with words such as “fabulous” and “awesome.”
      Although Tim is less disenchanted with his beliefs than Brea, arguing that he pretty much came to his beliefs by himself, he is having his own difficulties with his religious convictions because he has discovered that he is gay.
      It’s clear that all the girls in his school, represented here only by Brea and Laura, find him cute. But a casual question from a visitor to the community, “Is he gay?” signals these young people that Tim is, indeed, homosexual, bringing Laura to the ask the question directly and to 
promise to email him a list of Bible passages that prove it is a grave sin. Tim blandly suggests she do that, making it clear, despite his own insistence that it is simply something he is trying to work it out with prayer and thought, that he is comfortable within his own skin. And it is that self-assuredness that makes this character so truly likeable. Soon after, he tells his working-class father that he is gay, a widower who accepts the fact quite affably. But when Tim’s younger brother hears of it, he is anything but accepting, and Tim, who has begun to bond with Brea, calls her, suggesting he needs to get away.
     Meanwhile, Brea, much loved by the elderly busy-body in the church, Ms. Powell, has become friendly with her granddaughter, Cheryl (Sadie Rogers)—a self-admitted non-believer, and the two take her along to a clearly mixed gay, lesbian, and freewheeling local bar in their small community. There, Brea lets her hair down by wildly dancing, Tim finds a handsome young man with who he passionately dances, and Cheryl is approached by another woman. The trio has found their true spiritual home.
      But the other major figure in this tender film, the drama coach Austin (played by the director himself) is double-locked into that closed society by his marriage, and his sincere love of Elizabeth, and the growing recognition that he, too, is gay. We recognize his emotional state by a hand left perhaps just a second too long on a student’s shoulder, a clumsily attempted kiss of Tim at a party, and his inability to have sex with the wife whom he, nonetheless, loves.
      Brea, who was preparing, like Laura, to attend a local religious college, has quietly applied to NYU and suddenly is accepted, while Tim had planned all along to attend the New School. Understandably, Laura feels rejected, but we also know she will find a local boy to settle down with who shares her religious fervor. Tim and Laura will surely face rockier but far more varied futures.
       A return home after their first semesters, brings together the young trio, who perform again in Austin’s dramatization of the Christ’s birth. And during that visit, as Austin meets with Tim, the older man admits that he is gay. In a reversal of the usual roles, the younger consoles the elder with a deep hug, knowing surely that the elder is doomed to either remain in the closet or to destroy the entire life he has made for himself. It’s clear that he will chose the former, mouthing during the performance, “I love you,” to his wife, she responding “I love you too.”
      What this director shows us, time and again, is that love can take many, many shapes, even within closed societies. There are no monsters here, just human beings attempting to live out their lives the best they can, some within greater confines than others. The kids are wiser simply because they have attempted to work out the definitions of their world while they were young. For poor Austin, we realize, it is too late, and we can only deeply sympathize with the pain and suffering he will have to embrace for the rest of his life. But then, we also know that the man performing Austin, was a “wise kid,” who made his way in a different direction than his preacher father might have wished.

Los Angeles, February 16, 2018

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