Going to resume posting reviews I’m especially proud of, starting with this most personal of films.
The first clue to the brilliance of this film is in the title: Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. Rather than being a simple character study, it is a vibrant, free-wheeling ensemble piece, often abandoning the ostensible main character for entire sequences and placing him in the background for some scenes in which he does appear in. By adopting this structure, Cone crafts an incisive, heartbreaking, yet hopeful cross-section of a specific part of America: a Southern Christian family and their friends, both religious and not, and with widely varying sets of beliefs and sexualities. It feels both extremely focused and unexpectedly universal; especially to me, it felt like one of the most personal films I have ever seen, for reasons I won’t go into in this review.
Even from a technical point of view, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is wonderfully made, with particular attention to the various points of view that switch from scene to scene. Chiu’s cinematography is natural but subtly striking, capturing the vibrant party well as it gets later and later, and comes to the fore during some beautiful underwater shots that almost seem otherworldly in their serene nature. Cone’s editing ensures that the flow of faces and ideas never gets dull or shortchanged, helped by the use of both electronic, driving modern music and a strangely ethereal score.
But Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party soars on the perfect combination of its ensemble cast and its screenplay. As a whole, the cast naturalistically inhabits all of these characters so well, making each and every one of the twenty people on screen stand out from each other and interacting with exactly the right amount of chemistry that would be right for that specific grouping. It is hard to choose any standouts, as the ensemble forms such a cohesive unit, though perhaps Doman (who shoulders the responsibility of the main character with poise), Neilan (who plays my favorite character in the film with no small amount of ease), and Laidlaw (who gives perhaps the most demanding performance, delivering a difficult revelatory monologue in devastating fashion) deserve just slightly more credit.
Cone’s screenplay is built on a sense of the moment-to-moment; it is cohesive in both its character developments and its view of these broken but strong figures, but much of the joy of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is in seeing the interactions that occur, the little discrete scenes that pop up within each chunk of the film that offer a change in the viewer’s perspective on each person. From an unexpected crying fit, to a misguided remark, to a simple affirmation of one’s sexuality, the little things manage to make the viewer understand that these characters are, by virtue of their status as humans, unable to be cozily categorized into preconceptions. They are complex, deeply seated in their beliefs yet able to be changed in the course of a single day. But perhaps the most important change of all happens to Henry. In one day, the same shot changes meaning profoundly, and he, on his birthday, becomes more open, more thoughtful, in the way that I sense this film wants the world to be. Where else can you see Gregg Araki’s Kaboom and a Christian book in the same set of presents?