The world of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (★★★) is not one I’ve ever lived in, but it is one I’ve caught enough glimpses of the believe exists in some only slightly less grotesque form.
Exaggerated? Yes, quite a bit, but what film’s portrait of a contemporary American subculture hasn’t been? I was never one of these kids, but I’ve been friends with them, colleagues with them, and (later in my life) taught some of them. Whatever else Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party might get wrong, it absolutely nails the air of awkward self-consciousness and preemptive guilt that permeates members of a subculture living in the constant fear that the slightest word or gesture might somehow reveal their true selves to those with little tolerance and less kindness for what they might see.
The fear is palpable at Henry Gamble’s birthday party. It’s manifested by those who must preface any compliment for or comment about non-church approved people or activities with a moral caveat. A bikini is referred to as a two-piece, and it’s owner needs to get out in front of the revelation that she possesses it. It goes without saying–except it must be said–that even secular music that is acceptable would be better if it weren’t so filthy. Being seen by the wrong person holding a glass of wine is not just a cause for embarrassment but a faux pas that could ruin a Christians’ reputation. Or life. Maybe they are the same thing?
The swimming pool in the Gambles’ back yard acts as a sort of objective correlative for the fears–particularly the fear of sexuality–that is rarely acknowledged yet always present in this microcosm of an evangelical community. Henry’s father is a pastor at some sort of suburban church. The adults mostly sit on deck chairs around the pool, pretending not to drink and discussing the horrors (just discovered) of sex trafficking. A girl sheds her outer clothes, back to the camera, as the pastor watches, his sexual frustration hinted at by a quick glimpse of a hand half in his pocket.
The pool outside and the windows inside reflect and refract the white light that bathes its characters and gives the film an ironic, shimmering halo. In a lot of Christian films the actors look too neatly groomed, their houses too much like unlived-in models rented for a shoot, the labels on food jars purposefully generic. The lighting here exaggerates slightly the artificiality of the look, but it works by reminding us that this external appearance is one both sought after and thought normal by some Evangelical families. It’s almost like Disney made a live-action version of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
The camera here pans slowly but relentlessly in, around, and through, mostly stationary characters. It’s subtle enough to not always call attention to itself and gives us the feeling that we– or the characters — are drifting. It’s a nifty effect.
I suppose my one big complaint regarding Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party isn’t that nobody (no, not one) who professes faith is happy or well adjusted.It’s just that nobody is even happy adjacent. Repression does make people unhappy, and there are plenty of religious people who are repressed, but is that the sum total of religious experience in America? Granted the film does depict the opposite end of the spectrum–a casual shrug over what once was considered a sacramental act–as equally unhealthy and unnatural. When Henry’s sister confronts a young man who is revealed as her first sexual partner, his surprise at her pain seems disingenuous to me. But I was a teen decades ago, so what do I know?
The wet blanket the film throws over all things Christian also has the effect of making us root not just for the gays to come out of the closet but for the women to throw off the suffocating prison of marriage. When the world you depict is broken beyond all repair, it is hard not to root the hardest for anyone who takes the leap of faith required to begin to get out.
For all that, though, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is a film that is a step up from most films about Christian and two from most Christian films. The portrait it paints of its characters is not flattering, but it is interested in them as people and not just as mouthpieces for orthodoxy. In the same vein, it’s interested in its gay characters first as people and only second as figures representing gayness. Gay films and Christian films often share a similar weakness–a disinterest for any facet of a character’s life other than their faith and sexuality. They can paradoxically call on us to not pigeonhole their characters while implicitly suggesting that nothing else about them really matters.
Content advisory: The film opens and closes with two teen boys in bed. What is spoken and depicted is not particularly graphic by contemporary film standards, but it may feel as though it is for those who watch this for the Christian content and have not been exposed to very many gay films.