Film Review: Henry Gamble's Birthday Party

A real chance to probe evangelical Christianity, with all of its contradictions and intolerance, by someone definitely in the know is blown here by an undue emphasis on melodrama.
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It’s the 17th birthday of Henry (Cole Doman), who’s gay, and his evangelical pastor dad and mother (Pat Healy and Elizabeth Laidlaw) are throwing him a party. Along with his college freshman sister (Nina Ganet), the guests include an assortment of kids from school and, of course, church, and their God-fearing parents. What should be a deeply joyous experience turns into an endless nightmare of angst, largely generated by the tensions felt by all present stemming from their religious beliefs versus the temptations of that pesky, tempting secular world.

If ever a work should be called Long Day’s Journey into Night, this is it. The fact that this bash stretches from the afternoon into what feels like midnight (of the soul) is only the beginning of the many implausibilities brimming over in this way-too-loaded movie. Writer-director Stephen Cone comes from a Southern Baptist background with a pastor father himself, so there are some huge axes to grind.  Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party starts off Chekhovian, with everyone seemingly in love with the very person they cannot have, goes into O’Neill/Williams territory through the deep, dark secrets they all conceal, and winds up in Disneyland with everybody happily paired off. Cone’s technique is heavy-handed, and his lack of formal film training is all too evident. (He constantly returns to a visual motif of nubile kids frolicking underwater in Henry’s pool when in doubt.)

The film starts with a ridiculously salacious scene in which Henry and a straight buddy are naked in bed and masturbate together, prodded by our hero’s suggestively exploitative questioning about his pal’s girlfriend and their sexual activity. This moment reminded me of the old Cecil B. DeMille formula which ran through his Biblical epics: Rope the horny public in with licentiousness and then pull a bait-and-switch and bring on the moralizing. The fact that Cone is largely questioning organized religion, rather than blindly promoting it, doesn’t make it any better, unfortunately. The best scene is where a couple of non-believers question the kids who go to religious school about how things like biology are taught. If the director had more deeply probed issues like this rather than endlessly focusing on soapy melodramatics, he might have had something here.

An attractive–if very white, with a few token exceptions–cast tries to rise above the material, and in some instances does, like a scene in which the appealing Laidlaw confides a past indiscretion to the troubled Ganet. Doman is a tad too smirky and vanilla to be an empathetic protagonist, but a couple of character actresses have a juicy time with their puritanically disapproving roles (“Two-piece bathing suits! Well!”). Cone cannot, however, avoid the Christ-like martyrdom imagery in a far-fetched sequence which has one troubled youth unconvincingly locked in the bathroom, scourging his face with a razor. Talk about harshing a birthday fiesta!

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