Sexuality and faith collide in 'Henry Gamble's Birthday Party'

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Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, opening in New York this Friday at the IFP’s Made in NY Media Center, is a coming-of-age drama about a teenage boy from a conservative Christian family whose eponymous birthday party goes a bit less smoothly than expected. It’s at turns a sweet, emotionally affecting film about coming to terms with one’s sexuality and a more dramatic examination of the difficulties of reconciling homosexuality with faith. What Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party definitely isn’t, according to director Stephen Cone, is a “gay film.”

A Chicago-based writer, director and producer who grew up a “queer preacher’s kid” in Charleston, South Carolina, Cone previously tackled the intersection of sexuality and religion in 2011’s The Wise Kids. That subject area is “something that’s always been on my mind, especially growing up during the ‘90s,” Cone explains. “That was an even more tension-filled time in terms of negotiating sexuality and faith. There was arguably much more repression than there is now.” Where The Wise Kids centered around a smaller church that more closely echoes Cone’s upbringing, Henry Gamble takes place in “Midwest megachurch-land.” Cole Doman—like most of the young actors in the film, a newcomer—plays young, sexually questioning Henry, the son of a megachurch pastor played by Pat Healy, the film’s most recognizable name. (Cone jokes that Healy, an indie horror stalwart, was “relieved to not be cast in a role that would require him to beat someone else or be bloody.”)

The plot of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party involves—you can probably guess—Henry Gamble’s birthday party, attended by both members of Gamble Sr.’s congregation, some of whom take a dim view of homosexuality, and Henry Gamble’s friends, pious and secular alike. Cone thankfully avoids bombast and melodrama, teasing out the relationships between characters with naturalistic interactions and covert glances rather than nail-on-the-head dialogue. You get the sense of a deep inner world in Henry Gamble, of truths implied but never spoken. That’s “a testament to the casting process and finding the right actors and developing a rapport with them,” Cone explains, adding that Chicago, home to Steppenwolf and Second City, has “a long history of brilliant, craft-driven actors.”

Somewhat ironically, the struggle of Henry Gamble-the-character to reconcile his sexuality with his faith is echoed to a certain extent by Henry Gamble-the-movie, specifically in Cone’s wish that it not be pigeonholed as a film exclusively meant for gay audiences. Though he’s careful to note his appreciation for his LBGT audience and LGBT distributor Wolfe Video, which handled both The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble, Cone argues that the audience at non-LGBT regional film festivals have the potential to “wrestle with [Henry Gamble] in a little more of a complicated way.”

“I would not be where I am without The Wise Kids being out on the gay circuit,” he elaborates. “But I also wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for BAMCinemaFest, Maryland [Film Festival], Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington… That’s the big struggle with making films like this. They naturally get pulled into the sophisticated indie film arena, and it’s not as easy to screen for middle America… LGBT audiences tend to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I know these people. I know what you’re talking about. I’m right there with you.’ But if I go to, like, Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, NC or the New Orleans Film Festival, then you might get some church people sneaking in there. You have to find that moderate, semi-liberal sweet spot where there are Christians who are open to this kind of thing. Because super-far right evangelicals, I don’t think, are going to take to it. I hope they do! Every now and then someone surprises me. I still go to church when I go home, and every now and then a conservative evangelical member of my dad’s church will come up to me and be like, ‘I saw The Wise Kids. I really loved it,’ and in my mind I’m like, ‘What?! Really?!’ [But] for every one of those, there are nine other people who are like, ‘Oh, I see what Stephen’s doing. He’s trying to critique us.’”

With Henry Gamble, that’s definitely not the case; part of his cast’s preparation involved watching documentaries on the evangelical world that avoid the “really condescending and kind of ugly” tone that Cone argues is common to much of the subgenre. “I don’t have any anger or bitterness towards being raised in an evangelical church. I’m not a part of it anymore, but I’m not angry,” he explains. “There’s a lot of damage that’s done in that world, and there’s a lot of hypocrisy that I hope is relayed a little bit in the film, but I enjoyed going and being with these people growing up. And also there are a lot of lonely, sad people in that world. Even as a young person, if your antennas are out, you’re like, ‘Who is that middle-aged man who always comes to church by himself and sits in the back row?’ You may not be able to identify, oh, he’s probably gay and repressed and in terrible pain, but you have a feeling about them. You gradually realize that they are struggling. There’s something about their community that’s not embracing them. It’s really unfortunate. It was more like that in the '90s. But I think now, hopefully, there are fewer of those tormented, lost souls as society gets more open.”