This review was co-written by Level Ground's Director of Programming, A.C. Neel and Executive Director, Samantha Curley.
Level Ground had the honor of co-presenting the Frameline Film Festival’s screening of the feature film Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, a screening that took place in a packed house at the historic and epically beautiful Castro Theatre in San Francisco. This emotive and refreshingly honest independent film unfolds over the course of a single day as it follows the interconnected, joyous, and painful moments in the life of Henry Gamble.
We learn a great deal about Henry in the first five minutes of this movie. He runs a podcast about great music, he is celebrating his 17th birthday, and he is gay. He is, however, not fully honest with others - or even himself - about his same-sex attractions, a fact made more complicated because he is the son of an evangelical pastor.
Henry is hosting a day-long birthday pool party at his house in the suburbs of Chicago (as the director noted, this is the land of John Hughes' films). Due to his father’s work obligations, Henry’s party includes not only school and youth group friends, but also a mix of church members and staff, leading to a mix of awkward, and all too real, conversations. It is through the small interactions - the prayer requests, the “Praise the Lords!” and the invitations to church camp - that this movie slowly builds a holistic world that depicts evangelical suburban life.
In the film we see the tension between the illusory and the real. With Henry’s character in particular, this is portrayed through the difference in Henry when he is above water vs. underwater in the pool. Above water he is not being fully honest with his guests or himself. When he is underwater, however, for those few crystalline moments he is free and able to see himself, and his own attractions, more authentically.
This film is not only about Henry. It is also about the way that church communities talk about, and don’t talk about sex, sexuality, and grief. These themes unfold over the course of a day in which the thin veneer of pseudo-perfection quickly disappears in the light of unblinking honesty. There are no “perfect” people in this movie, just as there are no perfect people in real life. As lies, rumors, and sadness circulate around the fringes of this birthday party, the film forces you to stare at the painful results of repression and resentment. The film does gift you with moments to celebrate when vulnerable communication does take place, sometimes with the help of a little red wine smuggled in to a stuffy gathering.
One church parishioner comes across as particularly judgmental, but the film as a whole does not make Christians the "bad guys," at least not from our perspective as staff of Level Ground watching this film. We observed something truly interesting going on — a film screening in the Castro somehow had the power to make the audience feel a genuine and emotive concern for the wellbeing of a conservative megachurch pastor and his family. Director Stephen Cone certainly meets the challenge of creating empathy through this film.
What helps this film shine is the space it creates for moments of reflection, using creative cinematography and an immersive soundtrack to infuse tangible moments with transcendent impact. It is a bold and effective film, and we hope more films like this continue to be made, as the often uncomfortable space of dialogue about faith and sexuality can come to be filled with vulnerability, honesty, and reflection.