Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
(Stephen Cone, 2015)
Mircobudget indie filmmaker Stephen Cone has made seven films. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is not just Cone’s best film; it’s genuinely one of the most significant American films of the year.
Set over the course of a day, Cone pivots around the Gambles, a devoutly Christian family headed by a pastor patriarch (Pat Healy) as they celebrate their son’s 17th birthday with a pool party. Immaculately sprawling yet tenderly intimate, Cone introduces the Gamble’s friends and family piece by piece, with characters moving in and out of the frame at a moment’s notice. There’s an Altman-esque quality to the picture that makes it feel especially mammoth despite being centralized largely within the Gamble’s household for its runtime. What you get out of the film’s increasingly growing cast of characters and moving bodies is a sense that so much is occurring outside of the frame, that it lives and breathes outside the confines of what the camera presents. This is compounded by Cone’s veteran experience with actors, prompting some of the most compelling performances of the year (Cole Doman as the titular Henry Gamble and Nina Ganet as his sister Autumn are particular standouts).
The sizable cast complements a slew of contentious debates, which figure primarily as a crisis of faith against the inflexibility of Christian ideology. It would have been simple for Cone to present this as a series of sharp moral contrasts, but there’s a great deal of care in how he presents even the most devoutly religious characters in the film – this is the sort of film that needs to be seen by the most staunchly conservative and liberal and the most devoutly spiritual and Atheist. It speaks truths that render those spheres of thought as inconsequential.