“There sure are a lot of stories.”
Simple words, and ones that brim over with unbridled and unexpected feeling in Stephen Cone’s miraculous “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.”
What’s my story? Gay cinephile, embattled freelance writer, and man of little faith; not in our government, certainly, and especially not in God. I am turned off by the abstract, confused by the often unthinking beliefs held by so many. And that is precisely why Cone’s latest, along with 2011’s The Wise Kids, caught me off guard.
Dispensing with plot machinations in favor of many organically, slowly-revealed character studies, Cone’s work marries evangelical religion with an unceasingly sympathetic regard for his subjects. It just so happens that several of said subjects are queer.
You’d better believe Cone’s working from his own story, then, and by plumbing the depths of his identity, this director’s work doesn’t just transcend categorization and formal structure. Its highly personal nature allows the viewer, or this one anyway, to add complex shading to long-held prejudice about the religiously-inclined, and to respect these characters—even when they don’t respect each other.
“You grow up in the world you grow up in,” noted Cone during a recent phone interview. “All of our lives consist of basic human interactions. Church is on Sundays, but there are six other days of the week when we’re all human, right?”
That’s certainly so for Henry Gamble, played winningly by Cole Doman. When we first encounter Henry—on a Friday night, just about 24 hours out from Sunday, mind you—he is lying in bed beside his best friend, Gabe (Joe Keery). “How big is yours?” Henry asks him, and the two teenage boys proceed to masturbate together, their minds on two totally different wavelengths. Gabe, so caught up in describing the intricacies of how he’d have sex with their mutual friend, Emily, doesn’t notice that Henry is clearly fantasizing longingly about him rather than her.
It isn’t until they are done that we catch an inkling of the film’s religious framing. “You should talk about some Christian bands sometime,” Gabe says, referring to Henry’s music podcast. He continues, glancing at the clock: “Hey, happy birthday, dude.”
It’s a wicked, funny, and jarring opening, especially compared to The Wise Kids, a far more gentle film in which one of a triptych of lead characters, Tim (Tyler Ross), is openly gay, and quite accepted, from the start.
“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” takes a different approach, spending much of its time focused on repressed sexual desire and (mostly) silent judgement, an intentionally cutting evolution from Wise Kids’ relative idyll.
“Judgment is prevalent, side-eye is prevalent,” Cone noted of the evangelical Christian world, “and in some ways—this is a weird self critique—but in a way you could argue that The Wise Kids isn’t a 100% accurate portrayal of the conservative evangelical southern baptist community. Texturally it feels slightly more like liberal Methodists.”
Henry Gamble cuts to the quick, though. “There’s beauty and true human genuine kindness in [the evangelical] world, but there’s so much judgment, too and it causes so much pain. Every time we read about a kid committing suicide, that’s judgment exploding.”
Cone approaches that territory, introducing Ricky (Patrick Andrews), a suicidal, possibly gay twenty-something early on in the film. No one dies during “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” but the pain and suffering of several of the guests is rendered with depressing clarity. It’s an honest acknowledgment of what can go wrong when faith and its various teachings trumps an individual’s sad reality.
Cone understands this world better than most: “My dad is a Southern Baptist minister,” he tells me. “Obviously I can’t let it go.”
One of the reasons he keeps coming back, though, is the overarching misconception people might have of religious communities. “It’s such a large portion of the the American population and it’s a mistake to assume that everyone is the same,” he said.
“They’re represented as cartoons,” Cone argues, but with an observational eye and an open heart, he hopes his films achieve something different. “I’m prioritizing the humanity of the characters, not their belief system. Most of it just comes from actually really admiring a lot of people from my upbringing and enjoying myself most of the time. That’s why these people feel the way they do, because I loved them in real life.”
Cone assembles a rich cast of characters, each of them given their due as uniquely justified individuals. They arrive one-by-one to Henry’s house, where his parents, Pastor Bob (Pat Healy) and the beautiful, sad Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw) are throwing a poolside birthday party for their son. From secular school friends to devout church-going adults, this eclectic bunch carry enough baggage with them to weigh down any festive occasion. For the most part, though, they keep their thoughts to themselves, opting for coded glances and abrupt assumptions rather than honest expression.
At the center of it all is Henry, observant, confident, and happy with his standing amongst his friends. All the same, his known world begins to shake apart: his two most liberal friends essentially tell him he is gay, Logan (Daniel Kyri), the only black kid at the party, may be making eyes at him, and the girl Gabe is crushing on might just have a thing for Henry instead.
Representing his consistently changing perspective, the steady conversation and thrum of music is broken by several moody glances underwater. As Henry takes in the world around him, noting the kicking legs of his friends and family, he may be realizing a great deal more about himself than he ever has before.
“There’s that stage where you’re finally talking about your queerness to your friends and it’s really liberating and that’s sort of where Wise Kids was,” says Cone of his films’ queer characters. “And then there’s that moment before when it manifests itself more subtly. You see it first—and you hear it [from other people]—before you recognize it in yourself.”
That gradual experience of gay identity—not traumatic, or particularly dramatic—was a common thread between Cone’s writing and his leading man, Cole Doman, who was raised Irish-Catholic.
“I went to Catholic school for half of my life,” says Doman. “When I was confirmed, my parents let me off the leash and said ‘Take what you learned and be the person we taught you to be. We’d love for you to maintain a relationship with God but we understand that that doesn’t necessarily have to be your priority.’”
“I felt a huge connection to Henry,” he continues. “I’m gay, and my sexuality was never something I was ashamed of. When it was brought to my attention I wasn’t super resistant to it. I had my struggles, but, like Henry, I wasn’t ashamed to be who I am.”
One of Henry’s greatest sources of strength, his mother Kat—who harbors a burgeoning awareness of her own sexuality—showers her child with unconditional support as well. There’s is a warm, loving relationship. “I was interested in a really strange but lovely way with trying to connect family members sensually—not sexually, but sensually,” says Cone. “[Henry and Kat ] are people who have, despite their spirituality, a relatively healthy awareness of their bodies. I wanted it to fuel them, and also have it lead toward their liberation.”
Doman agrees, and believes that Kat sees something special in Henry: “She observes something in Henry that is not the norm,” he says. “I think she can acknowledge that, and while he can’t see that in her—or maybe he can—she responds to the ‘other.’”
She also gifts Henry a Duran Duran album on vinyl, flaming the fire of his musical obsession.
“One thing I drew from my own life with Henry was the music,” says Cone of his script. “Whether you’re in a world that encourages your sexual identity or not, I think you often feel the first pangs of sexuality and sexual identity via music. I remember riding in the bus on church trips and listening to Pearl Jam and Sarah McLachlan on my walkman, and feeling like it was so exciting to encounter adult sexuality for the first time. It’s like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, pop music. It’s such a universe that you get to travel to.”
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is its own little universe, too: alien in concept, beautiful in execution. Non-drinkers sneaking mugs of boxed wine in the laundry room; a young woman whose concept of loosening up is dipping a toe in the water; another who hyperventilates at the first mention of her virginity. All of these people are foreigners to me, but somehow I understood them loud and clear while watching this film.
“It’s very difficult for me to hate people,” Stephen Cone tells me, and I believe him. If he were a vengeful writer, or an angry director—if he didn’t care so damn much about each and every one of his characters—this “Birthday Party” would quickly devolve into stereotypical zealot madness. As it stands, though, Henry Gamble has surrounded himself with complex, difficult, frustrated people. Essentially, people with stories, just like you and me.