Film

Stephen Cone’s ‘Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party’ Offers a Soak in Sins and Faith

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Blond, body-hairless, and lithe, newly minted seventeen-year-old Henry Gamble (Cole Doman), a pastor’s son, probably doesn’t know yet that he’s a twink — or much else about gay slang. Although this suburban teenager loves jerking off next to his pal Gabe (Joe Keery), a fellow believer, Henry’s ardor for megachurch teachings might be stronger.

In his seventh feature, writer-director Stephen Cone returns to themes explored earlier, and more successfully, in The Wise Kids (2011): strict Christian doctrine versus carnal needs, whether homo or hetero, adolescent or middle-aged.

Spanning 24 hours, largely in and around a kidney-shaped backyard pool, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party features a larger intergenerational ensemble than that in The Wise Kids and, as a result, more disparate, discordant acting styles. And whereas the earlier movie impressively upends clichés, particularly in the plot threads devoted to the flawed adults, HGBP too often relies on caricature (as in the virago obsessed with sex-trafficking) and histrionics (a twentysomething pariah hacks up his face with a disposable razor).

Yet Cone, who is bighearted toward but not uncritical of his Bible-thumping characters, has a keen sense of seemingly incongruous details: a tiny gold cross affixed to low-rise lavender bikini bottoms; Henry’s gift haul, which includes both a DVD of Kaboom, Gregg Araki’s tale of apocalyptic ambisexuality, and Otherworldly: A Guide to Becoming a Man of Christ. Flesh and the Spirit may constantly be at war, though it’s clear which side Cone roots for.

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

Written and directed by Stephen Cone

Sunroom Pictures

Opens January 8, Made in NY Media Center