I wrote the following review of Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY for Cine-file Chicago.
Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY (US)
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel with subscription
Across eight features and numerous shorts, Chicago-based independent filmmaker Stephen Cone has carved out an indelible niche in America’s 21st-century cinematic landscape. The son of a southern Baptist minister who came to filmmaking by way of theater, Cone has made a name for himself by chronicling the eternal conflict between the ways of the flesh and the spirit — always with an impressively humanistic eye and often within an adolescent/LGBTQ context. His heartfelt movies have steadily won over festival audiences and critics since THE WISE KIDS premiered nearly a decade ago but Cone stands to gain deservedly wider recognition than ever before now that the prestigious Criterion Channel is spotlighting three of his best films. HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY, Cone’s seventh feature, is an ideal introduction to his work for the uninitiated. It’s a coming-of-age story in which an individual’s coming of age is telescoped into a single day and location: the titular 17th birthday party of the son of a “megachurch” pastor. The party takes place mainly in and around a backyard swimming pool and is populated by a large cast of teenage characters (i.e., Henry Gamble’s religious and secular friends) as well as their adult parents. Central among the many external and internal conflicts depicted in this charged suburban milieu is Henry’s coming to terms with his sexual identity. Although it has its cinematic forebears (an opening scene in which the closeted-gay Henry masturbates with his hetero best friend Gabe is an explicit homage to Andre Techine’s WILD REEDS), the film ultimately impresses for its cultural specificity: Cone has stated that the starting point for his original screenplay was the act of making a list of people he knew from childhood, a strategy that clearly pays dividends when it comes to such humorously authentic lines of dialogue as “Are you churched?” or “Well, Jesus drank.” Cone also admirably avoids stereotypes — he’s especially good at showing, in a realistic manner, how the tiniest cracks can appear in the belief systems of his evangelical characters — and his script is brought to life by a fine ensemble cast (Nina Ganet as Henry’s repressed older sister Autumn and Elizabeth Laidlaw as their long-suffering mother are especially good) and Jason Chiu’s masterful widescreen cinematography. (2015, 87 min, MGS)