Monday, January 4, 2016

HENRY GAMBLE'S BIRTHDAY PARTY: Religion and sexuality clash in Stephen Cone's new film

HENRY GAMBLE'S BIRTHDAY PARTY begins with some mutual masturbation by two friends, as one of them talks about the girl he wants to fuck. And the other boy? Well... he doesn't seem so interested in that girl. Turns out that both these adolescents, having a sleep-over, are quite religious (Christian fundamentalist variety), and tomorrow is the birthday of one of them: our hero, Henry Gamble.

The writer/director, Stephen Cone, shown at right, is especially adept at exploring the subtlety of relationships and how these are expressed -- those of the boys to each other and to their friends, particularly the one black kid in the midst of all these whites. (He is played with a nice mixture of inquisitiveness and care by Daniel Kyri, shown at center, below.)

Mr. Cone's dialog is smart and real, with all the exposition nicely buried within the off-hand speech and behavior, as well as in the situations that arise, most of them fraught yet somewhat hidden. Soon enough we see the hypocrisy of fundamentalist Christianity bubbling to the surface of things, as friends and neighbors congregate for the party of this very well-liked young man who is struggling with his own sexuality and how to express it.

The film is blessed with a cast of young and middle-aged actors who form such a fine ensemble that you feel they've known each other over a lifetime. So, for at least the first half of this 87-minute movie, incident barrels along and character grows.

In the leading role, Cole Doman (above and below) makes an auspicious debut, and the rest of the well-chosen cast is not far behind him.

But then Mr. Cone begins adding too much individual crises to the mix so that, very soon, melodrama sets in. This is not deadly -- the movie's still amusing and fun -- but it does take what initially seemed like a smart and realistic look at religion, family and sexuality and then turn it into something approaching soap opera, as too many heavy-duty changes occur too fast.

This is too bad because the first two-thirds of the film are quite fine (the ending, in fact, is lovely!). But the filmmaker can't quite negotiate the narrow strait he has created -- that birthday party -- because of all the sudden trauma on view. So intent is Cone on demonstrating how even a very religious family needs to find a way to encompass love, growth and open sexuality that he takes things just a little too far.

Henry Gamble's Birthday Party -- from Sunroom Pictures, in association with Chicago Media Project -- will open in New York at the IFP's Made in NY Media Center on January 8th, before expanding to additional markets and VOD platforms. (That's Elizabeth Laidlaw, above, who does a fine job playing Henry's gracious and caring mother.)

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