Movie Review - Henry Gamble's Birthday Party

Cole Doman as the titular character in
'Henry Gamble's Birthday Party'
Writer-director Stephen Cone made the film The Wise Kids (2012), which was about a group of teenagers in a church group putting on a play about Jesus Christ. It's also about what life is like in their quiet, suburban, Christian community. Within that film, one of the characters was a gay teen named Tim who celebrated his birthday at home with family and friends. This movie takes that one birthday scene in The Wise Kids and expands or stretches it out to a feature-length story. Similarly, it's the birthday of a gay teen named Henry Gamble who is closeted. Similarly, he's in a church group. He's the son of a pastor in fact and similarly many of the same subjects and themes are explored here as in The Wise Kids.

Cole Doman stars as Henry Gamble. It's his 17th birthday. His mom, dad and sister are celebrating by having a party. It's being held in their upscale backyard where there's a sizable pool. Yes, it's a pool party. About a dozen or so of Henry's friends show up, as well as friends of his parents who have a bit of a barbecue, listen to some music and swim.

There have been several films like this one. They've been about birthday celebrations that have taken place all in one location and all in one day or night. This film isn't as outrageous or as raunchy as Project X (2012). It's not as comedic or John Hughes-like as Can't Hardly Wait (1998). Those two films didn't have gay characters any way.

One of the best examples of a movie about a birthday party with gay characters is The Boys in the Band (1970), but this film doesn't have that kind of militancy and aggressiveness. This film doesn't have the same, witty and acerbic dialogue as that 1970 film. If anything, this film is more an approximation of Henry Jaglom's Eating (1990) or even the recent Turtle Hill, Brooklyn (2013).

Instead of all adults, this film mainly concerns itself with the lustful desires of horny teenagers. The opening scene makes that fact very clear. Henry and his best friend Gabe, played by Joe Keery, lie naked in bed together discussing penis size and giving graphic details about sex with a girl. The two even end up engaging in mutual masturbation. It also starts what is the recurring motif of Henry's prurient gaze.

Henry certainly sets his sights on Gabe and takes every opportunity to stare at him. Whether it's his face laying against a pillow or whether it's Gabe's body half-submerged in the pool, Henry gazes with all bubbling desire. He doesn't dare act, let alone speak, on this homosexual desire. He keeps it to himself and maintains his heterosexual smoke-screen, mainly due to the religiosity of the environment around him.

People are homophobic in that they disagree with gay people but when confronted with a gay person, they aren't mean or upset. In fact, it would seem as if they aren't really confrontations at all. The characters here are all good Christian folks who seem to avoid conflict. They'll perhaps whisper behind people's backs, but they keep the drama to an extreme low. This, unfortunately, doesn't aide Cone's film in that there are no stakes at all in this film. There seems to be no driving force.

The arc of the adult characters seems to be to loosen them up and get them drinking, while Henry's mother comes to a decision about the state of her marriage. Yet, the performance from Elizabeth Laidlaw who plays Kat, the mother of Henry, is so generally depressed that her issue until she reveals it at the very end could have been that she was dying of cancer or something.

Because the entire film takes place all in one day, realistically things will happen that will be left as strands dangling never to be resolved. However, Cone does introduce an issue that does seemingly get resolved, but it's never clear as to why. Henry's sister, Autumn, played by Nina Ganet, totally flips out when her boyfriend, Aaron, played by Tyler Ross, arrives. She massively flips out and acts like she wants nothing to do with him. Then, by the end, she's sitting in his lap with no explanation or conversation as to what happened. Cone either skipped a step when writing his script or he edited an important chunk out.

Cone's film does an interesting job of watching the slow break-down of Ricky, played by Patrick Andrews. Ricky is a troubled man who is almost a pariah amongst the party-goers. He wants to be a chaperone to an upcoming trip, but he is denied again and again. Watching his spiral or devolution on screen is fantastically done and ends on a pretty shocking note.

The issue concerning the central character is obvious ground that Cone tread in The Wise Kids. He doesn't take a step beyond what he's done before. If anything, he goes backwards. The character of Tim from that previous film was quite a progressive one. Henry Gamble is more regressive. There's a lesbian here who is more interesting than him, but we aren't here to follow her.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 26 mins.

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