It’s summer, and that means...Pool Party!
Or, in this case, a movie about a pool party.
Recently, we watched Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, a 2015 movie that garnered a few awards and some positive reviews while making the rounds at film festivals. Obviously the title tells the basic premise, and the tag line provides a few more details: Preacher's kid Henry Gamble is turning 17 today. Bring your swimsuit.
The story and “action” unfold slowly, but here’s an overview:
When we meet Henry Gamble, he’s in bed with Gabe, his friend from church, after a sleepover. They’re shirtless and talking about penis size. Gabe isn’t sure about his exact number in inches, so Henry suggests an immediate measure. The talk turns to a girl at church Gabe lusts for, so Henry directs the conversation to the specifics of what Gabe would do with her, which gets them both excited, leading to...well, what teenage boys do when they’re excited. (Nothing explicit is shown.) While Gabe is really into the fantasy of sex with the girl, it’s clear that Henry is into on Gabe.
It’s the first clue our title character has a secret sexual struggle.
After they are “done,” Henry whispers his prayers and goes to sleep.
This is our first indication this movie will confronts the dichotomy of religion and sexuality.
The next morning, we begin to meet the rest of the characters, the Birthday Party attendees:
Henry’s family: His father, the pastor of a local conservative church, his mother, and his sister, Autumn, home from her first year at a conservative Bible college.
Henry’s friends: Some from the church youth group, others from school. A few are more defined, with names and a bit of backstory, but most tend to blend into a nameless bunch of pretty people in the pool. Prominent among the guests is Logan, who obviously has a crush on Henry. (More on him later.) And there’s Ricky, who has the most dramatic scenes in the movie, but his is the most unclear story, told mostly in gossip and innuendo.
Folks from Church. His parents also invited several adults from church, including the youth minister, his newly pregnant wife (a racially mixed couple) and a youth music leader. There’s Ricky’s mother, Rose, a recent widow who shows up with a box of wine, not knowing most of the people don’t...or aren’t supposed to...drink. We also meet a middle-aged couple—Larry, one of the leaders at church, and his wife, Bonnie, a sour, rigidly religious woman who keeps a tight rein on those around her and vocally opposes anything that might appear fun: drinking, swimming, dancing, music, etc. They bring their very repressed adult daughter, ironically named Grace, who’s not allowed to go into the pool because of her mother’s legalistic beliefs.
The entire movie takes place in one 24-hour period, though most is limited to the hours of the party.
This is an understated, layered film. I can’t say I loved it, but it did fascinate me, more so in the evocative narrative than anything else.
The movie was written and directed by a gay man, and involves Henry’s awakening sexuality, but it’s certainly not a “gay film.” It’s not a religious film, even though the director is also the son of a Baptist minister, and the elements of that environment are a major part of the story. We have the expected characters for all the scenarios—religious and non-religious, gay and straight. I don’t want to dismiss any of them as stereotypes (except possibly for Rose), so I’ll opt for the idea of representational, or perhaps if it’s not too lofty, archetypical. And while we see hints of how various individual might deal when they learn of Henry’s sexuality, it’s also not a movie about navigating being gay and Christian. (At his party, he opens one gift with a gay-themed DVD, and another with a book on how to be a godly man.) Personally, I don’t even see the movie as primarily about Henry; his party merely serves as the backdrop for all the surprises going on around him.
It’s promoted as a “coming of age” and a “coming out” story, which typically involves lots of emotion, angst, and at some point, that inevitable First Time.
Not in this movie.
Generally the combustible combination of Conservative Christianity and Emerging Sexuality is a surefire formula for an explosive confrontation.
Not so much in this movie.
Gay-themed movies that include Conservative Christians usually involves the inevitable cartoonish Bible-thumping, threats of hell, offers to pray, righteous rejection, demands to change.
I’m not going to spend too much time on the movie’s symbolism, though I see plenty. (One of my favorites is where Grace, the inhibited daughter of the hyper-legalistic mother, is caught watching TV—a scene of a man being carried away by a large bunch of balloons. The look on her face says so much!)
To me, the focal point—the heart—of the movie is the swimming pool. I could use lots of clever water- and pool-related words to talk about what happens in the movie: “treading” through tough issues, “diving into” his true feelings, “swimming” in the deep end, etc. But I do think the pool is a metaphor of the story being presented. There’s two scenes, one in the beginning and another toward the end, where Henry goes under water and looks around. To me, that sets the theme of the movie, and alerts us to two realities: what we see, and what’s just Under the Surface. The kids in the pool and the adults standing around the pool have secrets they try to keep submerged.
In the course of the party, many are revealed.
Aside from Henry’s sexuality, there are numerous other issues...just Under the Surface:
- Based on a sustained, worried look, Henry’s father might suspect Henry’s secret. We also get the idea his mother knows, but would be more supportive.
- Autumn, Henry’s sister, won’t go in the pool because she struggles with body image. We also learn she and her boyfriend recently had sex. She had serious regrets, and broke up with him.
- Larry, the elder church leader, probably has a drinking problem.
- Henry’s Mom did something that could destroy their family.
- Gabe sneaks away from the party to have sex, while simultaneously (and repeatedly) asking God for forgiveness.
- And of course, there’s Ricky, a troubled, enigmatic young man who stirs up several discussions speculating about his recent hospitalization (overdose? suicide attempt?) as well as rumors he got "aroused" in the showers at last year’s youth camp.
There are times this film deftly handles the culture clash between young and old, gay and straight, religious and non-religious, without either being the villain or hero. However, some scenes are as nuanced as a Donald Trump speech!
- Bonnie is overly concerned about “America’s sexual condition” specifically pornography and sexual trafficking, and has disdain for the lack of clothing of the girls in the pool. (One of the girls wears a tiny cross on her tiny bikini bottom.)
- After the pastor’s wife tries to offer a reasonable, economic explanation to why some women might end up in prostitution, she’s asked: “You aren’t going Democrat on us, are you?”
- The argument between Autumn and her boyfriend when he shows up unexpectedly. She makes their consensual sex sound like rape.
- Henry’s father and Larry, the church leader, are watching a violent movie on TV during lunch, but when a ”filthy” sex scene comes on, they change the channel.
- The youth music leader is concerned about the “bad influences and sexual confusion” he sees at the party. He and the youth minister will interrupt the festivities to offer a lengthy prayer, full of all the religious clichés one would expect at a revival meeting, followed by a guitar-led, stereotypical praise song.
- That climatic scene with the mysterious Ricky was chilling, and abrupt. Throughout the film, he’d fought not to be ignored, then ultimately makes a desperate decision that makes ignoring him impossible.
As Larry Montgomery, the church leader (and my favorite character in the movie), notes while listening to the gossip about various members of the party: “There sure are a lot of stories.” Sadly, I don’t think this movie adequately tells those stories; there were too many and that weakens the overall impact.
Some aspects of the movie confused me, but one particular element left me (pardon the thematic pun) unsatisfied—the character of Logan. The same youth leaders who don't want to include Ricky ask Logan to teach Sunday School, even though they've been told he's gay. We’re not sure who invited Logan to the party, because Henry and Gabe both seems surprised when he arrives. We see immediately he has a crush on Henry, who treats him with open disdain. When there’s a casual touch, Henry rebuffs him. After opening Logan’s gift, Henry is reluctant to give him a “thank you” hug, and must be prompted.
And yet, in that final scene...<shrug>
As the party draws to a close, we’ve seen some surprise changes in some who attended the party:
- Henry’s Mom makes a major decision, after telling her daughter: “You’re always becoming yourself...[but] you never arrive.” She experiences a personal liberation, first by shutting down the judgmental rantings of Bonnie with the (oh, so symbolic) statement, “I think it’s time to change the channel,” and then diving into the pool.
- Autumn sheds her fears and the t-shirt covering her swimsuit to also jumps in the pool, followed by her newly reconciled boyfriend.
- To the chagrin of her mother, Grace dangles her feet in the water. (It’s a powerful image, as she first dips her toes in, relishes the feel and sits down, with a look of satisfied joy!)
- Probably the most drastic, visible change is Larry. By the end of the movie, he’s no longer “in the closet” sneaking drinks, but openly partaking of and sharing the wine, in spite of his disapproving wife. The very tipsy leader dances by the pool with abandon and without shame. When the tragic event of the night happens, it’s Larry who has the revelation and makes the powerful proclamation to the religious crowd: “We’re doing it all wrong, people.” Then speaking to Logan, he affirms: “You, you’re gay, that’s fine. The Lord made you that way, fuck it.”
The movie ends where it began—a shirtless Henry in bed, talking with a (different) shirtless boy. Henry is a year older, and possibly a step closer to embracing who he is.
And as the credits roll, we’re left to ponder the consequences of all those birthday surprises, the untold stories, and the secrets still submerged Under the Surface.