Sunday, November 26, 2017

Stephen Cone | Henry Gamble's Birthday Party

by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Cone (writer and director) Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party / 2015, general release 2016

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After reading Akiva Gottlieb’s discussion of the writer-director Stephen Cone in the Los Angeles Times this morning, I decided to view Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party this morning, which had been recommended to me by the totally unreliable algorithms of Netflix (who often suggest for me a series of films I would never possibly watch). Well, I have watched numerous gay films, of course, and they recognized that I might be interested in this one, although I had previously shunned it because I had perhaps seen far too many young-boys-coming-out films and just felt I had to move on. My true love, obviously, is of classic international films.
      What a remarkable surprise, however, was Cone’s 2015 film, which revealed to me a new talent that I might never have imagined. For Cone’s film is not really about a gay boy coming to terms with his sexuality (although it is that too), but an entire community of highly committed Evangelical Baptists having to come to terms with their own personal demons in relationship with their often fervent beliefs which deny their all-too human desires and behaviors.
Image result for henry gamble's birthday party      Unlike so many directors attempting to deal with the same issues, Cone (the son of just such a Baptist preacher) never once dismisses or diminishes their values, but merely helps us to try to understand their own deep suffering because, as they might put it, sinners are still to be loved because Jesus forgives, despite their sins. Of course, their views of themselves and others as deep sinners is often horribly judgmental and painful, and in the case of Henry (beautifully played by Cole Doman), and his mother, Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw) in complete doubt of her relationship with her husband, Bob (Pat Healy)--who has somewhat recently taken over the pastoral position of a cancer victim, generally referred to as HM (whose wife, Rose Matthews is also a guest at Henry’s birthday party)--these religious values have put them into deep turmoil. 
     In fact, nearly the whole religious community, young and old,  have been invited to Henry’s 17th birthday party, which sets up a large ensemble cast that works very much like those of Robert Altman’s films and even one of Cone’s cinematic mentors, Jean Renoir, particularly in his Rules of the Game. If here the sexual romps are basically hidden, the pool being a perfect place to play sexual games beneath the water, it still represents a series of sexual adventures which result in a great many problems.
      As the young visitors to the party strip off their outer clothing to go swimming in the Gamble’s pool, the elders hover over their youth’s frolics to discuss moral issues—particularly Bonnie Montgomery, the only truly moral gorgon of the group—and, basically to gossip, as do the young kids themselves. Some who dare attend the affable Henry’s party are clearly secular and separated from their religious peers, particularly a lesbian couple, while others, such as the only black of the group, Logan (Daniel Kyri) and the former pastor’s son Ricky, are visually, if not vocally, ostracized. Both, so the youngsters and their elders gossip are gay.
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     The Gamble’s daughter, Autumn (Nina Ganet) now attending a Christian-based college, is equally an outsider. Evidently, having had sex with a young neighboring student, Aaron (Tyler Ross), who also tags along later to the party, she feels, mostly based on her religious principles, he has taken away her “purity.” She is also uncomfortable with her own body.
      Rose has brought a few bottles of wine to the party, which are quickly secreted under a back sink, but, one by one, the elders sneak out to imbibe in what they describe and medicine, and the elder community spirits shift, as they begin revealing their sins and, most importantly their fears and questions.
Image result for henry gamble's birthday party      By the time the party has nearly come to a close, Kat, the pillar of the Gamble family, has admitted to her daughter that she has not been fulfilled by her marriage to her pastor husband and that she has had a brief affair with the former Baptist minister as he was dying from cancer. The secular girls brilliantly question the would-be biologist Autumn about how she balances the fundamentalist teachings of her religious academy with the truth of Darwinian and other scientific teaching. Some of the randy young boys find love with the quite willing girls, and, Ricky, locked accidentally in the bathroom, razors his face because of his personal suffering as being a young gay man in such a deeply religious community, now rejected as a chaperone for the annual community summer camp. He has been caught with an erection while showering with some of his young charges.
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      Given Cone’s totally humanitarian acceptance of all his character’s flaws, all is apparently forgiven. Even the nasty Bonnie’s totally restricted daughter, Grace (Darci Nalepa), having been refused the possibility of the pleasure of the pool, causally dips her toes into it, denying her mother’s restrictions. And, in the marvelous surprise of the movie, the birthday boy, Henry, invites the gay black boy Logan to spend the night, asking, as film’s end, if he might kiss him.
     Cone does not show us that act, even though the movie has begun with Henry and his obviously straight friend, Gabe, in a mutual masturbation scene. We don’t need to see what is clearly the consummation of Henry’s and Logan’s love for one another; we can remember it from youth, the time of all of our discoveries for love and spiritual meaning.
    This film is one of the most non-judgmental and loving films I have seen in a very long time. These possibly Trump-supporters are made human, filled with the flaws of all human beings, and presented to us a real beings in a time when most of us, deem everyone who don’t agree with us to simply be “others” or as Clinton herself misspoke as “deplorables.” These characters remind me, vaguely, of one of my two minister uncles, a rather pious Methodist who had five sons, three of whom turned out to be gay, one tragically dying of AIDS. Their mother, at a rather early age, developed Alzheimers at time when few of us had even heard of the disease. The heart, as one critic observed, demands its own terms. The spiritual may help some to live, but love, as Christ reminded us, is the most important thing of all. As one of the characters in this film even reminds his pastor “Christ also drank wine.”
      This movie is a small one, despite its extensive cast, but it shouldn’t be dismissed. The New York Times critic, Ben Kenigsberg’s argued that “Mr. Cone is not a sophisticated writer, and his dialogue frequently spells out what ought to be subtext.” I strongly disagree. This is one of the most carefully nuanced and subtle series of conversations of contemporary films. Even apparent character types, such as the insistent Christian critic of all things current, Bonnie, is made multi-dimensional in Cone’s film. People, as her somewhat drunken husband insists, have so many stories to reveal.

Los Angeles, November 25, 2017

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2017).

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