The opening scene of this film plants you right in the action: two teenage boys masturbating together the night before the titular Henry Gamble’s birthday. Henry and his friend Gabe are the sons of two staunchly Christian households, and they’re talking about a girl while they do it, so no homo. Fortunately, as becomes increasingly clearer as the film progresses, there is, in fact, much homo.
Biggest Gay Mood: convincing yourself that masturbating with your bro isn’t gay (even when your arms are touching).
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015, Stephen Cone) gives us, on the surface, exactly what it claims to present, and for Henry’s seventeenth birthday, he’s having a pool party. A pastor’s son, Henry’s chosen invitees nearly all come from clean, white, Christian households which present themselves as the ideal of the American nuclear family model. And yet, at the same time as the maturing teenagers confront ideas around sex and sexuality, facades begin to crack. These human pinnacles of Christian lifestyle ー including the gracious hosts themselves ー are not as holy as they seem.
This film is actually a deconstruction of the white Christian American psyche. Under the guise of happy cordiality, unresolved issues bubble under the surface. The platform upon which these standards ー of purity, chastity, sobriety, commitment, marriage, child-bearing ー are held is so fragile, and it was bound to break at some point.
One of the attendees brings along a few boxes of wine as a party favour, to the initial outrage of Bob (Henry’s dad and town pastor), who stores it under the sink. Inevitably, the alcohol makes its way out, and characters end up revealing long-kept secrets to one another. For instance, Henry’s mother Kat and sister Autumn sneak out to the car to get tipsy and chat. There, Kat tells her daughter that she’s been unhappy in her marriage for a while. Heartbreaking reveals seem to break down this relationship; yet, as we will see, the relationship becomes that much easier to then build it back up now that the mother and daughter are free of anxiety and secrets.
We as an audience have seen hints of this unhappiness in private moments throughout the film. In the aforementioned car scene, Kat tells her daughter about desiring another man: “He looked at me as if I was remarkable”. This perfect suburban life is in fact dreary and unexciting, and Kat no longer feels desired by her husband. Later, when Kat talks to her husband, the pastor, about all of this, they end up framing the conversation around how they will keep their reputation; after all, this whole society is built around image and perception.
Autumn is home from her Christian college for the holidays, having so far successfully avoided her ex-boyfriend. When he arrives for the party, she has an intense emotional reaction: she runs down the street crying hysterically about having lost her virginity to him, even though she consented at the time. Indeed, she admits that she still loves him, but she can’t move past those religious instincts drilled into her since birth. Thus, she continues to have a breakdown when she recognises her past of having given into her desires and reflects that she is no longer chaste. This violent and intense reaction to something as natural as sex exhibits the devastating effects of Christian guilt.
This inner turmoil ー between evangelical Christian teaching and sexual desire ー frames the entire plot. The film is a self-contained, suffocating, insular narrative: there are no flashbacks, no dream or fantasy sequences, and all of the action takes place over the 24 hours surrounding (you guessed it) Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. The swimming pool water acts as a metaphor for forbidden desire, providing a literal surface under which to conceal furtive glances and to contemplate temptation. Underwater, we see bodies blurred and distorted by refracted light and air bubbles, a visualisation of the sexual confusion and discovery that the teenagers are experiencing.
It turns out that the intensely homoerotic opening scene was genuinely homoambiguous for Gabe. The same can’t be said for Henry. The camera’s gaze shows Henry’s perspective and soon lets us know about Henry’s desire for Gabe ー if his body language during the opening wasn’t enough, then the slow-motion close-up for Gabe’s shirtless dancing in the next scene certainly is. The film also provides us with subtly placed moments that show Henry’s internalised homophobia. When opening presents, Henry has to be prompted to give a thank-you hug to the closeted-but-obviously-gay Logan, who he has so far managed to avoid for the whole party (as have many others). Henry goes in, and then Logan’s arm raises as if to extend the hug at the same instant that Henry pulls away: the teenage sexual tension is palpable.
One notable party attendee is Ricky, who stays well clear of the swimming pool; unlike the other teenagers and young adults, Ricky is actively avoiding temptation because he’s already been shamed for his homosexuality. His entrance to the party with his mother Rose (who brought the wine) is greeted by visible tension and quiet whispers. Rumour has it that Ricky recently attempted suicide after his shower boner at summer camp caused a church scandal. Throughout the party, Ricky seems to be a burden to everyone, including himself. In fact, no one acknowledges his feelings when he’s in crisis: even when he’s having a breakdown, his mother talks about (and derides) him as if he isn’t even there.
Outdated attitudes towards queer identities are epitomised by the following discussion in the swimming pool. One of the girls suggests that Candice might be more sympathetic towards Ricky being gay because she’s married to (and pregnant with the baby of) Keith, a black man. She retorts that “people don’t choose their race like they choose to be gay”.
The film’s changing aesthetic and colour palette mirrors the (so perceived) moral descent which occurs throughout the birthday party: a hazy, warm, sunlit glow presides over the party during the day, later making way for a darker, more sinister blue tinge as afternoon moves into evening.
Top Tip: The short running time (under 90 minutes) and summer setting makes this film perfect for a late matinée viewing.
The exquisite soundtrack is atmospheric and evocative throughout, often deliberately contrasting with the image of cleanliness presented on-screen. Thumping beats or ethereal instrumentals are used to mock these constructed (white) spaces. For example, strained violins take over the soundscape as we watch everyone sing happy birthday to Henry in slow motion, adding a disconcerting, sinister tone to this tradition and exposing the fake smiles plastered over the party go-ers’ faces.
Young adult church members at the party witness what they perceive as loosening morals. However, desperate attempts to restrain the teenagers are not just fruitless, but shown to be actively harmful: youth pastors turn off the party music and bring out guitars to sing some folky Christian rock right as Ricky stumbles downstairs bloody having a breakdown and self-harming in the bathroom. Just when we’re laughing at the ridiculousness of the youth pastors worrying about music that’s maybe a bit too sexy, we get a chilling reminder of the real-life consequences of institutionalised homophobia in evangelical churches.
Fortunately, the whole film isn’t quite so aggressive in how it presents its message. Its power shines most brightly in moments of sensitivity, like Kat hesitating on her way up the stairs, wanting to tell her son that she accepts him as he is but not quite knowing how. The most morally corrupt characters in the eyes of the presented Christian doctrine end up being the most tolerant and accepting: Ricky and Logan (the gays) are both kind to others and sensitive, even in the face of explicit discrimination; Henry’s secular friends (the heathens) are his closest friends and accept him as he is, before even he knows who he is; Kat (the unfaithful wife) pushes her husband to be tolerant and open.
As mentioned, the film is self-contained in its narrative, spanning one location over a twenty four hour period. Henry starts and ends the film in bed with a boy (maybe a little bit homo), and his attitude shows the emotional journey he has been on in such a short time. The night before, he is playful, experimental, but always afraid to go over the line; the night after, he is sensitive and still hesitant, but also serious, mature, ready to confront his desires.
I won’t spoil it for you, but I watched the final scene again after the credits rolled, and ended up crying for a second time. Trauma aside, for me, that’s the sign of a pretty damn good movie.