Obscure Gay Film – Henry Gamble's Birthday Party Review
Wait, I thought this was a toy blog?
Content warning: homophobia, self-harm/suicide. I also basically spoil the whole movie.
About “Obscure Gay Films”
This’ll be my first post reviewing/examining lesser known LGBT-centered films that I think deserve some attention. Not that posting on my blog gets anything much attention, but every drop in the bucket helps, eh?
I’m a bit of a film buff in the making, and I find that there really aren’t a lot of gay films out there. Most of them are, reportedly, not very good. Half the films that seem to be touted as having LGBT themes of any kind are more or less vaguely suggesting such themes, rather than openly exploring them. There do seem to be lots of indie films cropping up that want to brazenly tackle LGBT topics, though, and I appreciate that. There’s a lot to see that, in a lot of ways, has never been on screen before, even in over a hundred years of film.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party isn’t the gayest film out there, but it touches on American Protestantism and sexuality more accurately and subtly than any film I’ve seen to date. How could I resist?
Plus I like indie shit and feeling avant-garde, so let’s go.
About this particular obscure gay film:
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is a film that takes place over the course of about 24 hours, where the “stories” that come together via the titular event are explored. I’m going to talk about some aspects of the film, but will generally not attempt to go full-film critic here. I don’t want to talk about it because it’s a good or a bad film and why–I want to talk about the reality of what HGBP shows so well, despite the film’s other flaws.
Some basic important information:
- Henry Gamble and his friends are in high school.
- His older sister is attending a Christian college/university.
- Apart from the teenagers, there’s a gamut of young-to-middle-aged adults that attend the party as well.
- They’re mostly fundamentalist-ish(“non-denominational”) Christians that go to the same church which Henry’s dad now pastors.
- One male schoolmate attendee has a crush on Henry.
- Oh, and the now-pastor’s wife had an affair with the old pastor before he died from cancer. The current pastor knows.
In the Pool
The movie revolves around the pool and the viewpoints expressed in and near it. You can almost imagine it as an arena where ideas meet. So what do we get? There are, for lack of a better word, sides:
- The Fundamentalist Side
- The “Liberal/Progressive” Side
- Something in the middle, where people that have deep roots in the Christian circle are having those roots tangled in with the progressive side. This isn’t a matter of choice for them, as one particular character study shows. It causes incredible pain and confusion. Interestingly, the two widely-suspected gay and Christian characters are the ones that get physically hurt–Logan hits his head and the former pastor’s kid cuts. I’d say this is where the pathos of the film lies.
Image: Henry and Logan play in the pool while Henry’s father looks on from the grill
The great thing about HGBP is that I think it gives an accurate representation of what I, personally, can attest to hearing and (forgive me) even believing about LGBT people when I was a Christian. I could easily have been at this birthday party. If you decide to watch it, there are honestly like eight characters that could have been me then. shudders. Even so, this accurate representation doesn’t fall into a trap of making the issue of bigotry into a charity case for the bigots themselves. The relatively complexity of what they’re all going through does allow for one to see that they’re human, but no excuses are made for their homophobia and other harmful, problematic views. If anything, HGBP handily shoves a damn good example of the damage those attitudes, words, and deeds do right into the faces of the Christian camp (hint: has to do with those content warnings and the former pastor’s kid).
On the “Liberal/Progressive” side, there’s a refreshing amount of support and strength in the characters here. There’s a teenage lesbian friend of Henry’s, and another who I’m guessing is some sort of not-straight (going off of some dialogue in a hammock-scene). She candidly comes out to him while sitting by the pool, surrounded by homophobes, dishing school gossip with Henry and their friend. Later, she challenges Henry’s sister’s education at the Christian university she’s attending for some STEM-field, even more brazenly. Near the end of the film she supports Logan, the gay black boy that everyone’s(including Henry) been acting ridiculously awkward toward (because they know he’s gay).
What we get in the lines and ideas themselves though, is a spectrum of Christian homophobia. There’s all the greatest hits:
outright disgust and derision
isolating/othering with actions, talk
“love the sinner, hate the sin!”
Now That’s What I Call Homophobia™!
Honey, I Indoctrinated the Kids
What is Henry, the pastor’s kid, like? The direction of film doesn’t really leave too much question on where Henry’s sexuality lies. He’s by far the least visibly harmed by the homophobia in his surroundings (he has internalized a great deal of it, however). Still, the opening and closing scenes find Henry in his bed, shirtless, with another teen boy. The first time it’s his best friend and they masturbate together; at the end it’s with Logan. First he apologizes for his behavior during the party. Then he asks if they can kiss.
Images: (Above) a teenage girl attending the party undresses and reveals her bikini. The shot is a close up on the cross emblem visible on the bikini bottom itself. (Below) Henry and his best friend look on from within the pool.
I think Henry’s situation is where a ton of teens and young adults raised Christian that find themselves with an “errant” sexuality or gender identity are at some point. He’s still relatively devout, but he’s regularly exposed to influences that pull him out of the trenches of the exclusionary dogma of the Church. Henry’s main hobby is listening to music and creating a podcast to share music; it’s obvious that this is what has afforded him the most mental liberty in his life. It’s not an accident that his mother, who apologizes to her daughter on-screen for having shamed her sexuality in the past, shares a special playlist with him. By contrast, the only music that the devout Christians introduce is a forced worship song and sermon. It gets interrupted by a side character that’s been cutting his face in the bathroom with razor blades, because his mental health is in tatters. This is due in large part to the way that the community has treated him after several incidents: 1) a vague, supposedly gay “shower incident” on a youth group trip, 2) his suicide attempt, and 3) the death of his father.
Logan is an interesting character, because he’s sort of stoic and stalwart in the way that he just…persists through the party. Through getting hurt, through his crush, Henry’s rudeness, the alienating rudeness of most of the other partygoers on top of that…Somehow it’s just good to see that he kept going and that another young queer person encouraged him. The contrast and alliance between him and the young, white, atheist lesbian is great, because it shows that queerness isn’t limited to whatever other markers your identity might have.
It’s the kind of movie that if I’d stumbled upon it several years earlier (and it had already been made), might have helped some.
For me, watching this movie was a somewhat unexpected trip back into my not-as-far-away-as-I’d-like past. Its accuracy made it powerful, and I couldn’t help practically subtitute the people from my own life that would fit so many of the roles shown in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. It’s one of those movies that took me much longer to finish than the runtime of the film itself, because I kept having to pause and think and react (and write notes). I wish I could show it to people I know from back then.
Should You Watch It?
If you grew up going to church, especially “youth group,” yes. It’s a movie that gets a bit out of control with the many threads it tries to hang on to, but it’s honestly like nothing I’ve ever really seen. Like I might’ve had this pool party in high school, if I had a pool and…you get the idea. It’s also just a goddamn break from the typical movie bullshit, especially if you only watch popular films; even the typical indie “it’s in a house” movie isn’t quite like this.
The film has a lot more to show regarding sexuality in general as Christians deal with it as well, if you’re looking for more. There were certainly enough comments about “modesty” and “revealing” swimsuits, just for starters. I could write a lot about this film (I sure took enough notes while watching lmao).
I’m not really qualified to rate movies beyond “gud” and “i didn’t even finish it” so this isn’t going to be a thing I really do. I will say that this is, in my opinion, a “gud” [obscure] gay movie. God knows we need more of those. Keep ‘em coming.
I watched Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party on Netlfix US.