Writer/ director Stephen Cone’s modest, incisive gem “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” takes place entirely during the title character’s (Cole Doman, in a sly, winning performance) 17th birthday party. The film has 20 teenagers and adults coming together to celebrate at Henry’s home and pool. Over the course of the day, secrets and lies, both large and small, are revealed, contributing to mounting dramatic tension.
In a recent Skype interview, Cone, who helmed the equally fine 2011 film “The Wise Kids,” explained that “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” reflects the world he grew up in.
“When I was 17,” he said, “I was leading Bible Studies on Tuesday mornings at my South Carolina high school, while simultaneously coming into my own queer identity with a safe set of friends,” friends to whom “Henry Gamble” is dedicated.
Stephen Cone’s comedy of age film captures a preacher’s son’s acceptance of himself
“It’s a testament to my parents that I didn’t feel conflicted,” Cone continued. “One would think that growing up in a Southern Baptist conservative evangelical church, that there would be a crisis of sexuality, but my crisis was more about faith than sexual identity, as I explored in ‘The Wise Kids.’”
With “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” the filmmaker said his intention is “not political or religious,” but to show the characters as “having rich personalities, with flaws and desires and passions.”
Cone does this exceptionally well. The film unfolds organically, with characters being entirely defined by just snippets of dialogue, or even an unspoken moment between them. A tender scene in a swimming pool has Henry looking with desire at his straight best friend Gabe (Joe Keery), while Logan (Daniel Kyri), a gay teenager, is looking at Henry with the same shy desire. The film is full of such subtle, telling moments.
Cone presents the 20 characters and multiple storylines with remarkable dexterity, stylishly employing slow motion, whip pan shots, underwater sequences, and characters addressing the camera directly to visually cue viewers and engage their emotions.
He gets uniformly strong performances from his entire ensemble cast. Cone explained that he did no rehearsals.
“I’m a cinephile with a theater background,” he said. “I teach acting. I don’t do hands-on work as a director. What I try to do is relay specific terms of what I want, and then I’m very trusting.”
Doman, in playing Henry, said Cone created a comfortable environment for him on set — especially since his first scene on screen involves Henry and Gabe talking about penis size and relating sexual fantasies, before jerking off in bed together.
“I was, of course, nervous,” Doman said via Skype about the audacious opening scene. “I think it really sets up Henry in a certain light — that he is a smart kid and knows what he wants. He is used to getting it from his parents and friends. People feel comfortable with Henry. They trust him and confide in him.”
Doman explained while Henry may be aware of Logan’s attraction to him, he is crushed on Gabe in part because Gabe is straight and so “safer” — because he won’t reciprocate Henry’s affection.
“Henry is not ready to be in the world of gay men,” Doman said. “With Gabe, he won’t have to deal with it.”
Henry grapples with his unspoken desires in the pool, especially underwater, where he can silently observe the objects of his affection. Doman, who has been a competitive swimmer, embraced being in the water for the film, despite shooting during “a cold summer.” He thought of the pool scenes where Henry could stare at Gabe or Logan as “a private space, for him to think, like a bathtub or shower. But in a pool, where there are lots of bodies, Henry is being forced to see things that he wasn’t seeing before. These other bodies are in his space — and they are shirtless.”
Doman, who is gay, did not have the same issues Henry does about his sexual identity. He grew up in a liberal Irish-Catholic family, and recalled, “I never had a coming out experience. It was not ‘Are you gay?’ but ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ Being gay wasn’t a topic of concern or shame for me. I had trouble, but I went through what Henry does when I was 12 or 13, not when I was growing into adulthood. It is perhaps a smoother transition for Henry because he’s done going through puberty.”
Where he does relate to his on-screen character is in Henry’s curiosity, and, Doman said, “That he finds solace in music. Henry loves the storytelling of music; it’s a world outside of his own. His secular friends have introduced him to [non-Christian] music. Music was a really good way in for me to find Henry and feel close to him.”
Cone echoed the importance of music for Henry and the film, stating that he spent two months listening to and picking the songs, including two tracks by his Brooklyn-based sister, Frances Cone.
“I thought about how much pop music meant to me when I was even younger than Henry,” the filmmaker said. “Where do you experience true ecstasy? And true spiritual revival? It happens in the presence of a pop song. It was an alternative church.”
“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” addresses issues of faith and sexuality — Henry is, after all, the son of a preacher — but Cone’s film always feels graceful, never preachy or heavy-handed.
Doman summed it up best when he observed that the film is about characters
“Choosing love and happiness,” he said. “It’s handled in stride and with a lot of hope. It’s not a betrayal of their faith. It’s an acceptance of how they are and who they shouldn’t be afraid to be.”
HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY | Directed by Stephen Cone | IFP Screen Forward | IFP’s Made in New York Media Center, 30 John St., btwn. Pearl & Jay St., DUMBO | Jan. 8, 11 & 14 at 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 9-10 at 4 p.m.; Jan. 12 at 9 p.m.; Jan. 13 at 5 p.m. | Tickets at goo.gl/ocQPQ5 | Venue: nymediacenter.com