The struggle between religion and identity in “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”

In “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” director Stephen Cone uses the premise of a birthday party in order to explore the characters present. The party serves as the draw of the film, but the substance of “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” lies in how Cone weaves through the different party goers and shows us just exactly who they are. In its structure of character exploration, think of how David Lynch used the draw of Laura Palmer’s death in “Twin Peaks” as a launch-pad into an examination of the town’s characters and America as a whole.

I don’t think Cone is as ambitious as trying to examine America, but what he is doing instead, is looking at the consequences on everyday life that result from a strict belief in religion. Each character in the film holds a secret that burdens them; they each believe they’re being immoral but also find themselves drawn into these new avenues that their religion dissuades. As a screenwriter, Cone has created a film with interestingly complex characters, and as a director, he’s turned that screenplay into a film where he’s able to show the nuances of those characters.

Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) is turning 17 and so he throws a party to celebrate. Right away, we’re introduced to a bevy of characters. Bob (Pat Healy), Henry’s father and a preacher, Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw), Henry’s mother whose secret threatens to dissolve her marriage, Autumn (Nina Ganet) Henry’s sister whose religious upbringing makes her ashamed of her own body, and Gabe (Joe Keery), Henry’s close friend who later on will wrestle with the conflicting issues of his religious ideals and sexual desire.

Later on, once the party starts there’s also Bonnie Montgomery (Hanna Dworki), an ultra-conservative woman who believes that the girls of today are sinners, Logan, (Daniel Kyri), Henry’s friend, who is a black closeted homosexual with unrequited feelings for Henry, and Aaron (Tyler Ross), who used to be a leading figure at the group’s religious camp but fell out after attempting to commit suicide.

Each character is struggling with an issue that stems from their religious belief and Cone captures this by making the film awkwardly tense. Characters will attempt to engage in conversation only to essentially twiddle their thumbs and stare at the floor; everyone is skirting around the truth. That tension begins from the start of the film and builds throughout, resulting in the dramatic climax which forces everyone’s own truth to come out.

But to be more specific, I want to discuss the consequences of religious beliefs on the female characters of the film. Take for example Autumn who suffers from body-image issues and so avoids swimming. I should note that in this film, the pool in Henry’s backyard—the center of the party—plays a huge role in the film. It’s the area where things are happening because everyone is forced to interact with each other, thus leading into the tensions and revelations of certain characters.

When Autumn initially declines the invitation to go swimming, we’re unsure why. Her friends jokingly call her a “prude,” and another says she needs to get over her insecurities. Later on, however, we learn just where those insecurities come from. One character I mentioned earlier, Bonnie, goes on a tirade in one scene. Seeing a group of girls play in the pool, she becomes angered that they’re allowed to dress so skimpily—the girls are wearing two-piece bikinis, which seems to be the norm. Bonnie continues on how the young girls of today are too sexually liberated. That sexual liberation, she argues, leads these girls to eventually become prostitutes and porn stars.

From Autumn’s introduction and Bonnie’s speech, we can begin to connect the dots. Raised in a religious, conservative environment where women are taught to be ashamed of their bodies, Autumn becomes insecure of her physical image. This isn’t a sweeping generalization where I’m arguing that every religious or conservative environment has this effect on women, but at least it seems that the one in “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” does. In a touching moment of mother-daughter bonding towards the end of the film, the connection between conservative beliefs and womanly freedom is made more direct but avoids the issue of seeming too didactic.

“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” isn’t Cone’s first film but it still has elements of being a work from a budding director; namely, the unknown cast and low production level. Cone is able to draw out his characters and direct them well, but I don’t think he’s found a beat yet for his camera. The film is just shy of 90 minutes and so it’s short, but I found a number of scenes to be a bit superfluous. There’s a dream-like element to certain scenes, particularly ones showing the party reveries.

Cone slows down the action and overlays the scene with poppy shoe-gaze music, a la Lost in Translation or Millennium Mambo. From a thematic point of view, I don’t think these scenes accomplished too much, and I think that’s shown by how abruptly they end. It’s a film about a party so of course there should be scenes of partying; I just don’t think they were integrated well. I, however, can see an argument being made that these scenes are supposed to be the small moments of joy the characters are allowed before reality sets in. That dream-like quality then would reinforce the ethereal nature of the characters’ joy.

“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” is about the complexities of religion on the minutiae of life. While Cole’s directing of his camerawork leaves something to be desired, his direction of his characters, their attitudes, and the exploration of their conflicts make up for it.

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