Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
Directed by Stephen Cone
January 8-14 at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP
I really liked the songs you played on your music podcast, the girl with a cross pinned onto her string bikini says to the birthday boy. And then, with a note of awkward apology: Even though I could have done without the cursing. The lines between “Christian” and “secular” culture are wonderfully blurred in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, from the Chicago-based independent writer-director Stephen Cone—as Henry (Cole Doman) celebrates his 17th birthday at a pool party, with family, friends and friends-of-friends from school and Youth Group, and staff members at the megachurch where his father (Pat Healy) is pastor, identity, and identification, is fluid and potential. The film opens right around the stroke of midnight, in Henry’s bedroom, in a sequence setting up a coming-out narrative. But throughout the day that follows, everyone character in the film, adult or adolescent, might well proclaim, as the clearly closeted preacher’s kid does, looking at the clock matching the time on his birth certificate: I’m born. Or, perhaps, born again.
The film is set over a single day, at a single location, with a finite cast, and the introduction of each party guest is established with equal emphasis. The sequence of arrivals has a sort of acting-exercise quality, with every new character cause for subtle but legible shifts in individual posture and overall room temperature, and the various crisscrossing eyelines establishing ever-new axes of social status gauging, familial concern, religious judgment, sexual desire or shame (or both)—here the sour, censorious wife of a good-old-boy church official; there the atheist high school friend of Henry’s Christian college bio-major sister. Every glance is capital-s Significant; by the time the scene is fully set, there’s basically an exact 1:1 ration of secrets to characters, and in a milieu in which a single box of semi-licit rosé is enough to overcome universally low alcohol tolerances, the audience is waiting for the exposition of old conflict as much as for the sparking of new crises. The construction of the film is schematic in a way that’s satisfying—partly because the film isn’t schematic at all where it matters, in what it says about its characters, and their faith (in either a) God or b) Other).
Cone, the son of a South Carolina pastor, has a more direct line to some of his characters than others. The adult and devout characters in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party are plainly not as written-from-within as the questioning adolescents—dialogue scenes will often end on a hard cut just as somebody says something especially oblivious, about the alarming new epidemic of sex trafficking, say—but Cone, who also edited the film, keeps tabs on everyone, during dialogue scenes and as the party progresses, letting the actors marinate in their own internal monologues in a way that honors internal conflict and melancholy in whatever terms it’s being expressed in.
The kids in the movie are great—the guarded or enthusiastic way they talk about music, or whether or not to go to Christian summer camp, coming to understand their faith not as a given, but more like something like clothes or extracurricular activities, as just one thread of their culture, to either identify with or be embarrassed by, depending as much on their reading of the room as of any internal conviction.
Henry is “officially a hipster, as one of his friends proclaims when he receives some Duran Duran vinyl as a birthday present; his birthday mix (encouraged by Mom; begrudgingly permitted by Pastor Dad) provides the film a soundtrack of Instagram-hazy GarageBand shoegaze. But Henry is also affectionate towards his parents and earnest in prayer—and capable of inflicting harm. In his freezing-out of a more obviously gay friend, Henry demonstrates an instinctual talent for the sensitive-boy dark arts of social self-preservation: furtiveness, diffidence, passive-aggressive manipulation. It’s suggested that Henry is going to grow up to be a duplicitous little shit unless he can find a way to be honest with himself.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is a movie, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Boogie Nights, in which a backyard swimming pool becomes the nexus of a social network that’s inextricable from an awareness of flesh, whether abashed or accepting. Here, that’s complicated further by body issues, both religious and adolescent. As the evening wears on, the music plays, secrets are spilled, and more and more megachurch members seem to be walking around drinking something out of mugs, the pool becomes a kind of secular baptism, approached warily, or with a cannonball.