Film Review: The Wise Kids

Wonderfully intelligent coming-of-age story, filled with resonant questions of faith and done with a rare subtlety which honors the audience.

Charleston high-schoolers and BFFs Brea (Molly Kunz), Tim (Tyler Ross) and Laura (Allison Torem) are in their senior year and about to go off on divergent paths from their strictly religious Christian community. Tim, who has accepted the fact that he is gay, and Brea, who is cool with that and also seriously questioning her own belief in God, are both bound for college in New York, while Laura, who feels more than a little deserted, prays for their lost souls.

For whatever reason, this seems to be a great time for religious pics, what with Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground and now The Wise Kids. Writer-director Stephen Cone, the son of a Baptist minister, has crafted an extremely smart, highly observant and mercifully un-melodramatic study of religious questioning that admirably goes for subtlety over black-and-white conceptions of character. He skillfully and believably presents these kids’ world as being as incestuously tight as any Peyton Place, but without all the heavy-breathing histrionics.

One particularly complex character is Austin, the local pastor’s assistant, who is himself a deeply conflicted, closeted homosexual and whom Cone plays with deep understanding and humanity. Austin directs the church’s annual Passion Play and living Nativity scene in which the kids are involved, and his painfully furtive relationship with Tim is the most interesting story here, handled with admirable delicacy.

Kunz is as intelligent as she is lovely, a rare combination, while Torem is equally sympathetic in the more difficult role of resolute believer. My one problem with the film is the conception of Tim, who is made to seem almost too happily well-adjusted and self-loving, given his problematic environs. Although I can appreciate the refreshing absence of purplish angst in this character, it does have the effect of making him too simple, too bland, and Ross’ ever-smiling performance rather reinforces this notion. (Tim, with his fabulously tolerant dad who resembles a “Glee” refugee, almost seems like some kind of hopeful wish fulfillment at a time when, despite gay marriage equality and the like, life is still hard in the Bible belt, as is so harrowingly depicted in the documentary Bully.)

Sadie Rogers gives an impressive, quietly complex performance as Brea’s friend Cheryl, and Sadieh Rifai is quite wonderful as Austin’s wife, turning what could easily be a thankless part into something quite richly empathic. She’s no dummy and suspects her husband’s true nature, but such is Cone’s estimable tact and understanding that we are not only spared any scenes of shrieking outrage, but are also never in doubt of the considerable love they share, regardless.