Thursday, June 21, 2012

Losing My Religion

This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs and Andreas and Ashley over at Pussy Goes Grrr (who I've been neglecting to mention; please accept my apologies, guys. My bad.).

My local art house's series of microbudget indies continued on this Wednesday with The Wise Kids (2011, directed by Stephen Cone). As fate would have it, it's a queer-themed film. I love it when my local theater caters to my blogging needs. More to the point, I love it when they schedule movies that completely ambush me, as this film did. Going in, I thought it was mostly a coming of age film centered on one particular teenage boy in deeply religious South Carolina. What I wasn't expecting was a much broader ensemble that teased out many of the deeper problems of living an authentic life within the confines of American Christianity (and not just if you're gay). The whole coming to terms with being a gay Christian teen? Well, it's there, but it's not front and center and it manifestly refuses to unfold in the way an audience might expect it to. More interesting to me is the way the problem of sexuality challenges faith in the literal reading of The Bible as true. This also hit a deeply personal chord with me, but I'll come to that in due course.

"The Wise Kids" are a trio of friends who attend the same church in Charleston, South Carolina. They are: Tim, who is gay; Brea, the minister's daughter who is losing her faith; and Laura, who is fervently religious even in the face of the challenges her friends present to her. The film also follows the church's music director, Austin, and his wife, Elizabeth, who seem a perfect couple, but whose marriage is beginning to show some cracks. Austin is also coming to realize that he might be gay and he has absolutely no idea of what to do about it. Elizabeth, for her part, suspects Austin of having an affair (though not of being gay, necessarily, but she probably knows this, too). The first part of the movie details the staging of an Easter passion play. Brea has the role of Mary Magdalen, and she channels her faltering faith into her performance. The second part of the film, the long middle, finds the three kids each pursuing what will become their adult lives, with Brea and Tim applying for college in New York and Laura choosing to go to a less challenging "Christ centered" college at home. Tim, for his part, deals with being outed to his 13 year old brother and with the unexpected attention of Austin at his birthday party. Brea pursues a friendship, Cheryl, with one of her congregation member's granddaughters who professes unbelief. She hopes it will help clarify her own doubts. Laura feels her deep friendships with Tim and Brea unraveling, in part because both of them are deviating so profoundly from the faith she holds dear. She feels abandoned when Brea gets into a college in New York. At the end of the summer, they go their separate ways. The last act finds all of them reuniting at Christmas, when their church stages another pageant--a nativity this time--and their lives seem to be getting on. All except Austin, who is coming to terms with the fact that he's gay and doesn't have an out. He's trapped both in his marriage and his church. The kids, on the other hand, seem to be all right.

This is such a rich film I barely know where to start. I guess I'll start with the film's depiction of religion. This is not a film that demonizes Christianity or Christians, and I'm relieved that it doesn't. There's enough invective out there to fill thousands of films, but this is a film that tries to find the heart of why people believe, why they go to church, and what church and community mean. For Tim, it's merely inconvenient that the church condemns his homosexuality. He can reconcile the message he gets from his religion without losing his faith. Tim is sort of out, and almost nobody in the film takes him to task for it. The exception is Laura who tells him outright that she thinks he's wrong, but she does so in a way that shows that she deeply cares for him. She wants him to go to heaven with her. Same with Brea, who is perhaps even more of a challenge to her faith. This concern with spending an afterlife with people you love goes a long way toward explaining why people believe what they do, and makes it doubly hard to reconcile the things the Bible says will bar you from paradise.

I think there's a definite feeling of generational shift in The Wise Kids. Tim is able to be relatively out, and he doesn't suffer for it. His friends, even Laura, don't abandon him and he seems well-adjusted and happy. This stands as a stark contrast to Austin, who is trapped in the previous generation's paradigm of gay Christianity. (As an aside, I'm glad that this film chooses not to demonize Austin as a hypocrite, tempting as it may be). Tim's experience of his queerness is not a crucible. His conversations with his friends are all casual and are not traumatic. They take place on porches and on suburban streets. They aren't set pieces and they point the way to the future (I think) where it's no big thing, even in the most conservative of precincts. The most surprising element of Tim's story is his relationship with his father. When you first see him, you think that he's going to be an intolerant bully to his son just because there are so many of those preconceptions about good ol' boy fathers. Tim's father is a good ol' boy, with a prodigious beer gut and a deep faith, but he's also a loving father, and it's kind of moving to hear him ask Tim if he's found a "friend" when Tim comes back from college. There are no villains in this movie, only moral problems.

Laura is an interesting portrait of why people believe what they do. She maintains that her faith in a literal interpretation of The Bible is not stupid, and she's right. She knows deep down that if she starts to question it, she'll lose that faith because she's well aware of the various contradictions and horrors therein. "God's will is God's will," she says, "and we don't have to like it." Her faith fills a deep need, and her belief in an afterlife is something she can't bear to live without. She's horrified to see Brea making a journey of faith that she cannot. Brea has taken the next step. She's started googling Biblical contradictions and has an awareness of the fact that the faith you learn from your parents depends on who your parents are and where they are. Laura implores her not to "leave it lightly," and Brea promises, though leave it she does anyway. She's equally horrified by Tim's queerness. She vows to send him some verses and implores him to pray for deliverance. Her motives aren't hateful, as fundamentalists are sometimes portrayed. She truly does love the sinner. One hopes that she carries that into adulthood. Laura is the instrument the movie uses to really put the screws to Christianity, because she's the only person in the movie that realizes that if you're picking and choosing among the moral imperatives in The Bible, then you're deriving your morality from your own internal compass rather than from God. I doubt even she can live a totally Bible-directed life, in spite of her devotion, because the Bible itself makes sure that you can't. Christianity is a rigged game, and you can see Laura's realization of this in the desperation with which she clings to it.

Brea is the character I identify with the most in this movie, and I think her character's arc away from faith is perhaps the most moving part of the movie. I mean, gay coming of age stories are really common these days, but atheist coming of age movies? Particularly atheist coming of age movies set in the Baptist South? That's actually kind of rare, and for Brea, it's loaded with more risk even than coming out gay. It certainly seems more traumatic for her, which you can see all over actress Molly Kunz's face when she loses the words of the song she's singing during the Easter pageant. If the film has a major flaw, it's the ease with which Brea is able to leave her faith, given that her father is the minister at their church, but Brea's father isn't a villain, either. He seems more intelligent and open minded than you would expect. When Brea comes home after a night out with Tim and Cheryl, she finds him nodded off with a science text open on his chest. The movie is subtle in some of the symbolic cues it gives to Brea's state of mind. Early in the movie, she wears a necklace of the Christian dove of peace (a directed universe); later, she wears a necklace that's a four leaf clover (blind chance). I think the turning point for her is the scene where she asks Elizabeth if she ever had doubts. Everyone has doubts, she tells her. Brea asks the next question: "How did you get through it," and Elizabeth's answer is that "God is larger than my questions." I love that it pushes this further when Brea asks one further question: "What does that even mean?" I don't know if writer/director Stephen Cone is an atheist (I think he might be, but I didn't ask him during the Q&A after the movie; he is a preacher's son, though), but he certainly casts a withering glare at Christianity's penchant for stifling the exercise of reason in this scene. "Because God," is never a satisfactory explanation when one is questioning faith, and it's this exchange, perhaps more than anything else in the movie, that sends Brea on her own path of shedding her religion.

Brea's story, I should note, has deeply personal meaning for me. I never came out as queer or trans to my parents, but I did come out as atheist to my very Catholic mother. I've never had a bad experience with coming out as trans to anyone, but I never want to go through another experience like telling my mother I'm an atheist, because I saw the blood drain from her face and I heard the disappointment in her voice when she told me that she never wanted to hear that from me again. I don't know if coming out trans would have been worse, but I suspect not. So The Wise Kids puts its finger directly on my own experience, which makes me rather inclined to forgive some of its awkward elements (and it does have its awkward elements, don't get me wrong).

In any event, The Wise Kids doesn't appear to have a distributor yet, which is a shame. It's still making the festival rounds, though, so keep an eye out for it.


Caroline said...

I really love films like this that play with your expectations and challenge stereotypes to really communicate something real. I'll look for this one. Thanks yet again Christianne!

Aubyn said...

I've been slowly making my way through a lot of The Queer Film Blogathon entries, since I was pretty swamped with work during the initial run. I'm definitely going to look up this film, thanks to your review. I like the idea of each character coming to their own conclusions about faith and just where they will draw their limits. Your description of the difference between Laura and Brea is especially good. As an atheist, I've been extremely fortunate to never have to confront anything stronger than confusion or polite debate from anyone. But the "atheist's coming out" fascinates me when it's portrayed well.