Filmmaker Stephen Cone mixes religious and sexual themes to provocative effect in his coming-of-age story set during a single fateful day. Beginning with a scene in which two teenage boys wake up in bed together after a sleepover and proceed to discuss penis size and engage in a mutual masturbation session, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is destined to raise a few eyebrows. The film was recently screened at the BAMcinemaFest.
Henry (Cole Doman), celebrating his 17th birthday, is clearly struggling with his sexuality, under high stakes conditions since his father (Pat Healy) is an evangelical pastor at a suburban megachurch. Henry’s not the only member of his family with personal issues: His mother (Elizabeth Laidlaw) is deeply unhappy in her marriage, and his sister (Nina Ganet), returning home after her freshman year at college, is torn between her religious beliefs and the dizzying freedom of the secular world.
A thoughtful if slightly strained coming-of-age drama
The guests at the birthday pool party include a wide assortment of characters including Henry’s friends from both school and church as well as several adult members of his father’s congregation. The presence of the frolicking youngsters adds a sexual frisson to the proceedings, not-so-subtly illustrated by the filmmaker when one of the adult men stares at the nubile, bikini-clad young women, followed by a close-up of his crotch.
Tensions inevitably rise to the surface during the long day, including one middle-aged female church member delivering an impassioned lecture on the evils of sex trafficking. There’s also the disturbing presence of an emotionally fragile young man who apparently attempted suicide recently and who later performs a horrifying act of self-mutilation.
The young teens also engage in much spirited banter even as Henry becomes uncomfortable in his interactions with a male classmate (Daniel Kyri) who’s clearly attracted to him.
The filmmaker, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor, explored similar themes in his critically acclaimed indie feature The Wise Kids. Here, he’s somewhat less successful, straining to pack too much into the compressed time frame and single setting. The proceedings too often smack of melodrama and, with the profusion of characters, some inevitably come across as stereotypes.
The film works best in its quieter moments, especially in its touching climactic scene in which Henry, sensitively portrayed by Doman in his film debut, finally allows himself to act on his suppressed impulses. It adds a welcome hopeful note to the preceding turmoil, reminding us yet again that the heart inevitably wants what it wants.
Production: Sunroom Pictures in association with Chicago Media Project
Cast: Cole Doman, Joe Keery, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Pat Healy, Nina Ganet, Daniel Kyri, Jack Ball
Director/screenwriter: Stephen Cone
Producers: Laura Klein, Shane Simmons, Stephen Cone, Bryan Hart, Michael Leppen, Leslie Neilan
Executive producers: Steven Cohen, Paula Froehle
Director of photography: Jason Chiu
Production designer: Caity Birmingham
Costume designers: Chelsea Batson
Composers: Dream Boat, Heather McIntosh
Casting: Mickie Paskal, Jennifer Rudnick
Not rated, 87 minutes