henry-gambles-birthday-partyReview: Wisconsin Film Festival

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party | Stephen Cone | USA | 2015 | 87 minutes

UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, Friday, April 15 at 6:30pm»

Sundance Cinemas, Saturday, April 16, 12:00pm»

Edwanike Harbour looks at the latest from Chicago-based independent filmmaker Stephen Cone, and concludes that Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party offers laughs and heartfelt moments in equal doses.

The opening scene in this film belies the framework that surrounds a newly minted 17 year-old’s birthday party. We see two boys lying in bed next to each other during a sleepover while one describes in detail a fantasy about a female friend of his. Both boys finish masturbating and then go downstairs to have prayer before breakfast. You know you’re in for a treat as the homoerotic undertones give way to the evangelical Christian rhetoric through the fabric of a rapidly splintering family. This gripping comedy/drama offers laughs and heartfelt moments in equal doses.

Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills, Compliance) stars as the patriarch of the Gamble clan. He is a pastor of their church and although he seemingly has a great relationship with both of his kids on a superficial level, you can see sense that there are some rough spots underneath. Healy can communicate with his facial expressions alone, and he brings depth to every character he has portrayed. He nails it yet again as the protective but not too overbearing father of our protagonist, Henry (Cole Doman).

Henry Gamble poolIn the shadow of the Christian faith, we see Henry’s burgeoning sexuality coming to light as he feels conflicted about giving way to his urges. Many of his friends are attending the event including his friend Logan (Daniel Kyri) who clearly has a crush on him. There are the non-believers who attend as well as the mixture between the saved and the pagans creates an uneasy yet intriguing atmosphere.

The interplay between Christianity and the natural urges that people have not just as teenagers, but as fully grown adults make this a compelling drama. One woman brings a box of wine to the pastor’s house, but some attendees don’t drink so the Gambles hide it under the sink. As time goes on, a few of the adults resort to drinking it out of mugs anyway.

The sexual tension is palpable as any pool party with young, fit teenagers is bound to be. Especially ones that are filled with repressed urges and raging hormones. There’s also a scene where we see the pastor and one of his guests eating while watching a violent scene in a film. The violence doesn’t seem to phase them, but when a sex scene pops up and they fumble over the remote trying desperately to change the channel as a young man walks in the room.

One church member has forbidden her daughter to swim altogether as we see her eyeing up the pool and the other partygoers. Cone does a good job of exploring the sturm und drang that can erupt from repressing one’s natural desires and libido. The very essence of Christianity tells people to go against what comes to them naturally whether that be sexuality, a wide range of unpleasant emotions, or any self-serving interests a person can have. What see bear itself out in the film is how that repression can effect people psychologically and sexually. In one brutal scene, it is the things that have gone unsaid and explored that drives one character to do something horrible that can only be seen as expression of this type of inward rage.

Henry Gamble momBeneath all of the judgments, however, there are moments of tenderness, particularly between the mother Kat (an extremely talented Elizabeth Laidlaw) and her daughter Autumn (Nina Ganet). We see the veneer of the happy little Christian family begin to wear off as she confesses that she hasn’t been happy in their marriage in a long time. She also gives her daughter permission to love and embrace her body, which is a refreshing message that young women do not hear often enough.

This is a strong showing from Stephen Cone and a stellar performance by this cast in general. I am hoping to see great things from Cone in the future. The subtleties and dialogue that goes unspoken really grab you as a viewer as you piece together the puzzles of some of the characters backstories.

Cone makes his point about the harm that organized religion can do without being too preachy. He trusts his audience, which is another refreshing aspect to this film. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and as we grow and develop as human beings it will be easier to become who we all are. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party allows its characters to take time to explore and make those kinds of discoveries.

For other entries in our 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival coverage, click on #wifilmfest in the navigation menu.