"Henry Gamble's Birthday Party" film review- a fine and sensitive exploration

“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”, 2015, just released by Wolfe Media, is a triple award winning film about 24 hours in the life of a Christian preacher’s family and friends, surrounding their son Henry’s 17th birthday party.  Written and directed by Chicagoan Stephen Cone, this is a sensitive and mature handling of LGBT and Christian issues, with a great soundtrack, cinematically clean and clear. While admittedly a tad over-ambitious, including in this poolside celebration a cast of characters reminiscent of “Ship of Fools”, another watery mélange of characters, it rings true. Over the course of some 87 minutes, the audience is introduced to the tightly controlled, tight-lipped preacher, (Pat Healy) and his lovely but visibly distant and distressed wife, (Elizabeth Laidlaw) bursting to tear loose from the life and the marriage, who has concluded an affair with her husband’s mentor just before he died of cancer. We also meet their kids. Their daughter, (Nina Ganet) an earnest freshman at a Christian college, is at home for the celebration and eaten up with guilt about the loss of her virginity and sweet Henry, (Cole Doman), who comes to realize his gay sexual orientation this day.

Mia Hulen and Cole Doman

 In a very natural progression, onto the scene come Henry’s friends or church-group mates: a  desperate suicidal outcast (Patrick Andrews); a charming shy gay black kid who’s in love with Henry, (Daniel Kyri); an unabashadly horny young couple who hook up while he repeatedly prays aloud for forgiveness, (Joe Keery and Zoe Tyson); two knowing and ironic lesbians who come out to Henry at the party, (Grace Melon and Melanie Neilan) and an uncoupled couple of very straight white kids who get their eyes opened to the beat of Henry’s great music mixes and their own Christian guitar hymns, (Jack Ball and Mia Hulen).These are a very nice group of young people with good manners but natural appetites, and they demonstrate the full panoply of personalities as the day moves into night.

Elizabeth Laidlaw

But this is not just a teenage coming of age film. Included in the festivities are two mismatched and strange Christian families from the Church. The younger set combines a husband with a missionary zeal and his pregnant randy capering wife, (Travis A. Knight and Kelly O’Sullivan). The more interesting and fully explored group pairs a miserable middle-aged couple, (Francis Guinan and Hanna Dworkin). He drinks to tolerate her and she carps and complains about sex-trafficking and his drinking.They also have an embittered and morbidly depressed daughter in tow, (Darcy Nalepa) who is not allowed into the pool.  The widowed cancer victim’s wife, (Meg Thalkin), clueless mother of the attempted suicide, and possibly the least fully realized person present, brings four bottles of wine to the party, Initially stashed under the sink, they are quickly discovered and serve to lubricate most of the adults.

Grace Melon, Daniel Kyri, and Melanie Neilan

 Although many of these characters would seem to lend themselves to caricature, and there is absolutely a subtle strain of black humor involved in the portrayals, this is a work that never mocks, never capitalizes on easy outcomes, and has an impressive ability to shift the focus back and forth between the cast so as to really develop each character. Virtually every member of the large and well-casted ensemble has a moment of awakening, of comeuppance, of realization. We are privy to poignant and tasteful bedroom scenes, a mother and daughter rapprochement, and of course, the revelations of sexual preferences, identity issues, longing and angst.

Jack Ball and Kelly O'Sullivan

This is a very well written, very well acted movie. It is relevant without being trendy, and moving yet unsentimental. It’s highly recommended.

Cole Doman

 

Photos courtesy of Wolfe Entertainment

 

 

 

 

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