Stephen Cone’s film The Wise Kids, which opened at ReRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn this past weekend, is a refreshing take on youth sexuality, both gay and straight, in Southern Baptist communities. Set in Charleston, South Carolina, the film features three high school seniors: About-to-come-out Tim, doubting preacher’s daughter Brea, and biblical literalist Laura, who all confront issues of identity, self-acceptance, and faith.
But the plotline is not the average-gay-youth-rejected-by-Church archetype, something overplayed in media outlets today. Rather, Cone’s film avoids blanketing the issue of gay youth in church communities as against Christian values because it’s simply not the only outcome. Over and over, the film demonstrates the nuances of the experiences of some gay youth in more conservative Christian churches. This nuance is intentional for Cone. At the showing of the film in Brooklyn on Saturday night, director, writer, co-producer, and co-star Stephen Cone took the time to answer questions from audience members. He shared his goal to tell the story in a humanistic way, and to treat the characters as individual people. Cone’s mastery of subtlety, combined with honest exploration of a story rarely told, provides viewers with a seemingly unmediated account of three human beings – not three Baptists, not three Southerners, and not three conflicted teenagers.
Perhaps the best feature of Cone’s work is room left for the viewer, which is what he strives for in the film. Cone says, “The films and stories I love are the ones that allow the audience to fill in the blanks […] Anything else is so complete as to be useless. Stories with no room have nothing to offer up upon reflection, or down the road. And they aren't very much like life. Life is very roomy.” In many ways, the movie serves as a positive representation of gay experience within communities of faith. Cone says about the coming-out character Tim:
I guess I was interested in doing something a little different with Tim in choosing not to go the angst-ridden, tortured and excommunicated route. I know we're going through a horrendous period of bullying and torment, and there are kids in terrible pain and heartbreak, but I also think there's light at the end of the tunnel in regards to how quickly society is moving forward on this. And, while I know Tim's experience is not going to necessarily reflect that of a portion of the audience, I just hope the positive nature of his relationship with himself and his family and his God will at least provide a source of light for those still in the darkness, even if they're not seeing themselves in him just yet.
Although everyone will relate to The Wise Kids from a different perspective, ReRun employee Hunter Muse said that audience members have offered quite positive reviews overall. She says, “We've had a consistent response to the film, people LOVE it...the common comment is that it should be required viewing in churches, schools and youth groups.” Cone sees the film as being relevant beyond the LGBT community. In fact, Cone has a broader audience in mind. He says:
Well, one can always say the intended audience is people who like great independent films, but I don't think that counts. If I was to name a more specific group of folks, it would probably be teenagers. I really want teenagers - both those in high school and those entering college - to know about this film, and see it, and share it with each other.
Since the film is not widely distributed at the moment, it is shown mostly at independent festivals and theaters. It has proven very successful so far, though. When it premiered last summer, it earned both the 2011 Outfest Grand Jury Awards for US Dramatic Feature Film and for Outstanding Screenwriting, as well as the Audience Award at Newfest. The New York Times gave a glowing review of it as a Critic’s pick. For those who have seen it, the affective response is quite intense, reminding audience members of the power of film.
Muse discussed the importance of films like The Wise Kids at ReRun:
What films like The Wise Kids do is toss the typical biases and stereotypes out the window and offer a genuine view into the complexity of the dynamic of sexuality, religion and faith. Our goal and commitment is to help support the independent film community in the most basic way possible by offering the public the opportunity to see films they might not otherwise be able to and in turn help promote those films via grassroots word of mouth efforts.
GLAAD commends Stephen Cone for an honestly observant and untraditionally human take on a story highly relevant for youth today. The Wise Kids shows until this Thursday night, March 22, at ReRun Gastropub Theater in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Tickets can be purchased online.