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D: Stephen Cone / 86m

Cast: Cole Doman, Pat Healy, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Nina Ganet, Daniel Kyri, Joe Keery, Mia Hulen, Kelly O’Sullivan, Francis Guinan, Patrick Andrews

For Henry Gamble (Doman), becoming seventeen means having a birthday party with all his friends invited, and a smattering of adults, including of course, his parents, Bob (Healy) and Kat (Laidlaw). His sister, Autumn (Ganet), is there too, back from college for a break. Becoming eighteen also means continuing to deal with his attraction for best friend Gabe (Keery), while avoiding the attentions of Logan (Kyri) who is attracted to Henry. And that’s without the attentions of Emily (Hulen), who’s also attracted to him. And as if that’s not enough to be getting on with, Henry’s father is the local pastor, so he has to deal with his religious upbringing as well. But Henry isn’t the only one with problems. As the day unfolds, relationships are tested, secrets are revealed, and hard decisions are made – not just by Henry but by some of his friends and even some of the adults. By the day’s end, few of Henry’s guests will remain unaffected by the events of the party, and few will forget the shocking incident that brought it to a close…

Fans of the coming-of-age sub-genre of teen movies will no doubt take to Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party like his guests take to the swimming pool they spend most of their time in. It’s an amiable movie, perfectly likeable, but a tad underdeveloped on the drama front, aiming as it does to be quietly observant of its characters’ hopes and fears instead of putting them through anything like an emotional wringer. It’s a laidback approach for the most part, with writer-director Stephen Cone opting for a (mostly) genial approach to the material, while throwing in the occasional slice of unexpected melodrama at odd moments, such as when Autumn freaks out – and it’s a serious freak out – when her ex-boyfriend shows up. These attempts to break up the languid flow of the proceedings come across as sudden, unnecessary lurches in tone rather than an organic consequence of what’s gone before, and Cone can only revert back to the genial approach he’s committed to once they’re over. There’s plenty of drama to be had from the basic set up and the secrets that Cone reveals as the party goes on, but by downplaying much of it, it’s hard to become too emotionally invested in the outcomes.

The religious backdrop proves to be more of a device than an active ingredient, and though it gets more than its fair share of attention, Henry doesn’t really seem to be bothered by the possible ramifications of being gay in a Christian community (and he has no idea that the rest of his family have their own issues). Again, this makes the movie less impactful than it should be, and a handful of concomitant issues such as incipient alcoholism, ostracism, emotional abuse, and peer pressure are raised, only for Cone to avoid following through on them. In the end, the movie provokes more questions than it has answers for, and though that might have been Cone’s intention, it leaves the viewer somewhat abandoned in terms of their involvement in the characters’ lives. The performances do a lot to rescue things, with Healy and Laidlaw particularly persuasive as Henry’s parents, a couple with a lot to discuss but unable to do so, and the young cast of relative unknowns prove well chosen for their roles, with newcomer Doman ensuring Henry comes across as a sweet-natured but sometimes oblivious teenager only just beginning to trust the decisions he’s making – like most of us at that age.

Rating: 6/10 – being only moderately successful at making the trials and tribulations of its characters of interest to the viewer, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is a lightweight concoction that struggles to expand on a number of relevant points, and which is too simplistic for its own good; the ensemble cast work well together, and there’s some good close up work by cinematographer Jason Chiu, but Cone’s script needed a greater sense of purpose in order for more of his movie to work effectively.

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