Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party chronicles an auspicious day in the life of Henry Gamble, the turning-seventeen-years-old son of an Evangelical pastor. Henry is gay, though he is dishonest about this fact with others and with himself. His mom and dad, his sister, the members of his youth group, his youth pastor and youth pastor’s wife, and a few other members of their church gather at the Gamble’s house to celebrate Henry’s birthday with a pool party. Throughout the day, concerns common to the human experience—sexuality, violence, addiction, parent-child relationships, and depression especially—and the ways the Evangelical culture responds to those concerns splash to the surface.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is an ensemble film. It is excellently written. Writer/director Stephen Cone lets the party members’ secrets emerge deliberately throughout the day. Some he leaves to the story’s subtext, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t clear. Almost all the characters are complex, and their complexities are shaded in over time. By the end of the film, you feel that a complete film could have been made about any one of these people. For the most part, the film eschews “big” moments for small ones, aware that life’s most formative moments happen to us when others are unaware they are happening at all.
The film is well-directed too. It has a great sense of pace, and it trusts the audience to be paying attention. In one scene, the pastor and a church elder are casually watching a very violent movie on TV as they eat lunch. The violence in the movie doesn’t bother them at all. Then, the movie’s scene changes to one that suggests sexuality. At this, they get uptight. Their squeamishness about sex is central to the plot, so Cone underlines this moment. Their haphazard acceptance of violence is ancillary, so Cone simply includes it and moves on. Notice as well the differences between what happens above and below water while Henry is swimming. There’s strong symbolism there.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is also knowing about how everyone in a close-knit community like this church community already knows everyone’s secrets even though they don’t talk about them. Confessions in these contexts aren’t about revelation as much as they are about reconciliation. Confession, in this context, says, “I trust you,” more than it says anything else.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party praises the closeness of this community and the communal foundation it provides even as it points out inconsistencies and hypocrisies amongst its members. The film’s negative criticisms feel born out of mourning for the ways these hypocrisies threaten to destroy the potential good of this community. This is a stubbornly hopeful film that wants so badly to believe that this kind of reconciliation is possible in even the most fundamentally strict communities. Some days I believe this vision is more than a fantasy, that it could be reality. Some days, I do not. I applaud Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party’s optimism. I’m grateful for it.
Many will see this film as actively “pro-gay” and “anti-conservative.” If that bothers you, maybe pass on this film. It’s a little too insistent about what it believes to foster dialogue with hostile parties, I think. (Then again, can anyone dialogue with hostility?) If you can see it as an expression of the kind of reconciliation with their conservative family members and friends gay persons hope for, then do watch it. Take this opportunity to see through the eyes of someone unlike you. You might learn something about them and about yourself. Loving each other is difficult. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is an opportunity to practice doing just that.