tyler ross, allison torem & molly kunz
The first ever OutEast Queer Film Festival began at the Neptune Studio Theatre in Halifax this evening with a screening of Stephen Cone’s touching 2011 film The Wise Kids. The film is set in a Baptist Church community in South Carolina and has played at film festivals in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver and a multitude of other cities around the world. This was the film’s Halifax debut.
The film centers on three friends transitioning between their lives in High School and leaving the tight knit community to go to college. Brea, the pastor’s daughter, is contemplative and inquisitive, which leads her down a path of doubting the faith that has been indoctrinated in her from birth. These uncertainties leave her feeling spiritually ostracised from her family and the surrounding community. Laura, Brea’s best friend, is as devout and sure as Brea is skeptical and her discomfort with the possibility of being wrong leads her to hold on even more ardently to seeing the world in extremely black and white terms. Their other close friend, Tim, sweet, fun loving and creative, is coming to terms with his homosexuality and seeking to reconcile his sexual orientation with his abiding faith.
What I found so fascinating about The Wise Kids is its gentleness. Cone depicts all his characters, from the young people in the throes of confusion, to the pastors, parents and grandparents of the town with great respect and tenderness. The film is not at all derisive, nor does it make any sweeping statements condemning the Baptist faith for its homophobia. Instead the focus is on the way that the individuals in this town maneuver around the Christian dogma and one another in their desire to follow their hearts and be true to their authentic selves.
In a way the obstacles that Tim and Brea face are quite subtle. Tim’s father, for example, loves and supports his son unwaveringly throughout the film and Brea’s mother is thrilled and proud when she chooses to leave their small town and attend NYU, a move that will likely exacerbate her moving away from Baptist teachings and traditions. Yet, as depicted with Austin, an older music and drama leader in the church, the lifestyle of the community can be so overwhelming that it leads people to betray their innermost feelings and to seek to live the life they have been told is expected of them. Austin is extremely sexually repressed and his marriage to Elizabeth is on the brink of collapse because he has developed a crush on Tim. Tim’s bravery in coming out in the community and being honest about his feelings unleashes a torrent of closeted emotions in Austin but it is unknown whether or not he will be able to find the courage to unleash himself from the safe facade that he has lived for so long. In the same way, since Tim and Brea still remain rooted in this community their newfound independence of thought and choice remains a delicate balance and one that could be incited into hellfire at any moment.
Stephen Cone crafts this film in a way that honours the small town that he depicts. Curiously, there are a few short scenes that don’t further the plot and a couple occasions where monumental events are alluded to and not shown. I found myself so invested in these characters that I wanted to see more of their moments, but I found that it suited the film’s themes of concealment and a difficulty communicating that the audience was not given free rein in these people’s lives and had to piece together bits and pieces of the plot themselves.
The acting in this film is uniformly heart rending. Molly Kunz is reminiscent of an early 80s Molly Ringwald as Brea, Tyler Ross harnesses a beautiful sense of joy and vulnerability as Tim and Allison Torem, as Laura, spends most of the film in this lovely terrified urgency that comes straight from the heart. Cone plays Austin with a compelling mixture of affable and tortured, while Sadieh Rifai plays Elizabeth rampant with sexual frustration but also swathed in Christian pride and shame.
It is refreshing to see a film about teenagers that actually reflects the complexities of coming of age while still presenting characters that look and behave like teenagers in the world as opposed to the ones in Hollywood. Often progress doesn’t come from scathing revolutionaries, but by building tolerance, empathy and understanding in our communities over time and that is much of the wisdom of The Wise Kids.
The OutEast Film Festival continues tonight with Doc Night, beginning at 7:00pm at the Neptune Studio Theatre. Come watched Vito (7:00pm) directed by Jeffrey Schwartz and Wish Me Away (9:00pm) directed by Bobbi Birleffi and chronicling the coming out of country music star Chely Wright. For more information and the complete program guide please visit this website and follow along on twitter .