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Henry Gamble's Birthday Party

by Kevin Taft
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Oct 20, 2015
'Henry Gamble's Birthday Party'
'Henry Gamble's Birthday Party'  

Stephen Cone continues to prove he is one of the more interesting indie filmmakers working today. While his films don't fall squarely into LGBTQ territory, they always include some storyline that will be relatable to the community. This is more than evident in his complex and complicated drama "Henry Gamble's Birthday Party."

The film opens with the title character (adorable Cole Doman) and his best friend Gabe (Joe Keery) lying shirtless in bed for a sleepover. They begin to talk about sex, and Henry goads Gabe on to talk about what he'd do to one of their female classmates if given the chance. The two end up masturbating together, but while Gabe is firmly entrenched in heterosexual bliss, Henry clearly has eyes for Gabe.

Soon enough we discover it is Henry's 17th birthday and his parents pastor Bob (Pat Healy) and mom Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw) have planned a pool party for him and his friends. His friends consist of most of the people from his church's youth group, as well as some of the parents from church. It's clear this is a community focused on God and religion, and while this might seem overkill, for those of us that grew up in communities where church was a weekly thing and youth groups were your social hubs, it's not that much of a stretch.

Every kid that arrives seems to be talking about going to church camp or asking classmates where they are "churched," or quoting scripture. The exceptions are Christine (Melanie Neilan) and Heather (Grace Melon) who are without a church and one even reveals she's a lesbian. Add into that mix a black youth pastor and his white, newly pregnant wife, a gay kid who still feels like an outcast and clearly has feelings for Henry, a buttoned-up prude and her repressed daughter, not to mention her boozing husband.

But while Henry has to clearly hide his sexuality, his isn't the only secret that will come out before the party's end. Henry's sister August (Nina Ganet) is home from college and still feeling guilty about losing her virginity to her high-school boyfriend, yet still wears her chastity ring. Mom and Dad are having issues over a past infidelity, friend Rose (Meg Thalken) arrives with her troubled son Ricky (Patrick Andrews) who proves he still isn't quite together, and the local bad girl (who wears a skimpy bikini with a cross on it) has her eye on an underage boy.

All of these stories percolate under the surface, with Cone never allowing us into the secrets until much later in the film. This strategy works on a number of levels. First of all, it's realistic. Everyone has secrets, and in a community that has the fear (and love) of God put into them on a daily basis, those secrets are going to stay hidden. But the problem -- and what is compelling about Cone's story -- is that the more those stay repressed, the more problems will arise. This is a film about boiling points, and by film's end things have been revealed both quietly and with a shout.

All of the actors fare well here. Some have a bit of a newbie quality to them, but there's a charm in that. The key actors do a great job, and young Cole Doman is terrific. This is his first feature film and his first leading role, and he nails it. He is effortless, charming, and brave, and it will be a joy to see what he does in the future.

Cone (whose father was a Southern Baptist Minister) wisely doesn't judge his characters. When one girl -- who is white but married to a black man -- is confronted about her homophobia, she basically states that "people don't choose their skin color like gay people choose their sexuality." Cone doesn't have a character proselytize their reaction to her statement. He just lets the comment lay there, which is one of the most realistic moments of the film, and one of the most telling. Nobody is speaking up. People aren't saying what they need to so every comment, every hurtful statement, every lie or half-truth just bubbles under the surface. But at the same time, we understand the world they come from. We don't look at Henry as being "less than" because his favorite birthday presents are books about "becoming a man in God." This is the life he was born into, and these are the problems that can arise out of it.

It was nice to see something that feels pro-God, but also shows the blinding hypocrisy of communities that self-righteously use God as their ammunition and their savior. I may not be a believer myself, but I think that belief can exist even in communities and families that have diversity. It's a matter of taking off the stranglehold of what religion can twist around a person's neck and allow them to breathe and grow -- still in Christ if they so choose -- but for it to be okay if they choose not to.

By film's end a lot of Pandora's Box has been opened and not everyone will survive it, but Henry just might be okay.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.


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