Few films feature bros jacking off together in a totally “guys just bein’ dudes” kind of way as their opening scenes, but it seems “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” is just one of those pictures that is unapologetic in its delivery of raw material. The film, about a gay guy, a lesbian, and a dozen devout Christians attending a pastor’s pool party, spans just one day and captures the struggles of multifaceted characters trying to find where they stand with God, themselves, and each other.
Namely, there’s birthday-boy Henry (Cole Doman) who is dealing with questions about his sexuality and whose father (Pat Healy) is the preacher at one of those Wal-Mart-size churches. Then there’s the rabble-rouser of the group, Christine (Melanie Neilan), an outsider who doesn’t believe in God and questions biology-major Autumn’s curriculum which doesn’t include evolution. She encourages Autumn (Nina Ganet), who’s Henry’s sister, to think for herself and addresses more unspoken truths when she tells Henry she’s gay and her friend, Heather (Grace Melon) suggests that he is too. And the teenagers aren’t the only ones dealing with inner conflict. There’s Henry’s mother, Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw), who is more of an emotionless statue than a mother until she cracks and confides in Autumn.
This all happens as teenagers frolic and jump in the pool out back, as if taking part in a giant artsy baptism, while the score fluctuates between haunting church hymns and Henry’s more-electronic picks. The pressure mounts as Henry’s best friend and possible crush, Gabe (Joe Keery), chants “Lord, forgive me,” Autumn screams at her ex-boyfriend, adults drink wine behind closed doors, and community outcast Ricky (Patrick Andrews) takes action to finally feel something other than judgment and despair. “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” masterfully intertwines layered storylines in order to deliver a polished statement on Christian values and the strain of keeping up appearances. The most heartbreaking aspect of the film is that almost every character is struggling; they are just going through it alone in fear of potential backlash from their community.