There was a moment in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party where a woman started crying and when she realised she was crying claimed she didn’t know why. In many respects that moment encapsulated a choice throughout the movie to leave the inner lives of the characters open to our interpretation, which left me wondering how much could be read without a background in the particular social mores of conservative Christianity.
As someone raised within a small fundamentalist Baptist church, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party resonated with me almost more than I would like to admit. Although nominally about a young gay man’s coming of age, the semi-autobiographic film from Stephen Cone was highly concerned with showing how repression of this sort affects everyone involved in their relationships with their bodies, sexuality, and self-esteem.
The framing device of seventeen-year-old Henry’s sexual awakening was most effective in the opening scene as he mutually masturbates with a nominally straight mate, but otherwise felt a little swept to one side as almost every other character was given screen time to emote and, in a few cases, neatly resolve their arc. The strongest performance came from actress Elizabeth Laidlaw who played Henry’s adulterous mother Kat. From the moment she appeared on screen it was clear that Kat’s story would add a pathos to the film, and it was encouraging to have a mother’s sexual agency acknowledged and explored with such subtlety during a teenage coming of age tale.
Saying that, a tighter movie just focused on Henry might have been a little more satisfying, but the larger assembly cast style did provide an opportunity to critique social conservatism and some of its underlying hypocrisies – though some of this criticism was more heavy-handed than others. A particularly grating scene involved an atheist girl embarrassing another about studying biology at a Christian college, without giving enough weight to the reasons why someone might cling to their faith in the face of threatening theories like, gasp, evolution or homosexuality.
And yet, there were no real consequences for the subtle acts of abuse within the movie, and it didn’t feel like enough education or acceptance really took place – though lip service was maybe paid to it.
Overall, it maybe wasn’t the movie I wanted it to be – cathartic and authentic for those of us who carry our religious upbringings around like a judgemental weight around our necks. Instead, maybe, it will help lift a lid on the ways in which this insidious harm still takes place. If you think that conservative Christianity is harmless maybe give it a watch, but otherwise it will probably leave more old wounds open than it manages to close.
Words: Ana Hine
*Screened as part of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival 2016