The title is misleading: Henry Gamble (Cole Doman), teenaged son of a preacher man, is definitely having a birthday party—a pool party, no less. It’s an all-day affair for an Evangelical crowd, and it continues into the night. A lot more than cake, ice cream, swimming, and Jesus is going on here, though. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is much more complex and interesting than it may appear at first blush.
The opening scene is brilliant even if it is weird, and it shows exactly what Henry is going through: he’s lusting after his buddy, Gabe (Joe Keery), who just slept over. Henry’s sister, Autumn (Nina Ganet), home from her freshman year at a Christian college, is dealing with her lost virginity and possibly unresolved feelings for and mixed signals from the guy she gave it to, Aaron (Tyler Ross). Henry’s parents, Bob (Pat Healy) and Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw), are recovering from a disruptive event involving the deceased husband of neighbor and fellow churchgoer Rose Matthews (Meg Thalken) and contemplating a separation, something that probably doesn’t bode well for Bob’s career. Meanwhile, Rose, who clearly misses her husband, seems to have taken up drinking, and her son Ricky (Patrick Andrews) has other issues altogether.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is not what I expected—a very good thing. It’s about the secret matters that go on in private, how we face or avoid them, and the facades we all put up to keep them private. It definitely gets at Henry’s queer longings and raises some gay issues, but it’s not what I would call a “queer” movie. Its subject matter is broader than that. It’s not even focused on Henry—his family members, friends, and even secondary characters are all going through one thing or another: Logan (Daniel Kyri) is black and “questioning” if not gay in a homophobic white world, pastor Larry Montgomery (Steppenwolf member Francis Guinan) is questioning his faith and looking for an escape, and his wife, Bonnie (Hanna Dworkin), is repeatedly disappointed by the sagging morals of those around her. This is a smartly culled ensemble of realistic characters, each discovering himself or herself—much like Henry.
I enjoyed this film a lot more than I thought I would. Laced with sexuality, it manages to maintain both an honesty and an innocence that work really well. The acting, mostly but not entirely by newcomers, is surprisingly good—particularly Doman and Kyri, who play their parts with a winning uneasiness. Laidlaw is awesome as Henry’s mother, and she subtly defies what one might expect an Evangelical Christian mother to be. Writer/director Stephen Cone creates relatable, memorable characters—they’re all flawed and inconsistent, yet he approaches each of them with tenderness and leaves their dignity intact. A killer new wave inspired soundtrack scores major cool points. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party has the flavor of a John Hughes film—it was even filmed in Lake Forest on Chicago’s North Shore—but it stands on its own. Everyone here has a story, and each story makes for an absorbing film.
(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+