The passage of a group of young Christian friends from innocent lives at home to more complicated, maturing identities as they prepare to leave for college is the heart and soul of writer-director Stephen Cone’s acutely conceived “The Wise Kids.” An unusual example of what can be termed a “gay Christian” film, Cone’s feature is among the best of a recent spate of dramas observing American Christian life. With a brilliant cast of young actors and a growing array of fest prizes, the pic has more than a prayer with theatrical and vid congregants.
Best friends Brea (Molly Kunz), Tim (Tyler Ross) and Laura (Allison Torem) are at an “American Graffiti” moment, finishing their high school years and awaiting word from college. They’ve been raised under the guidance of a tight-knit Christian community at a Charleston, S.C., Baptist church, and in ways they can’t anticipate, they’re confronted with tensions between matters of the heart and their core beliefs.
At the crux of things is how Tim has begun to accept that he’s gay, against everything he’s been taught about its “sinful” nature. Brea finds herself equally accepting, while Laura — who tends to wear her devotion on her sleeve, and is sensitive to not being taken seriously — is shell-shocked, resorting to praying for Tim’s soul.
Complicating matters is that Austin (Cone, in an impressively nuanced performance in a difficult role), who assists the pastor and is directing the church’s annual Passion Play, is struggling with his own sense that he is gay, but can’t come to terms with it. Austin and wife Elizabeth (Sadieh Rifai) are key, active members of the church, and her suspicion that something may be going on between her husband and Tim bubbles to the surface.
To Cone’s credit, these potentially combustible ingredients don’t explode in extravagant melodrama. Rather, the characters’ emotional landscapes are subtly drawn and equally subtly played out; his camera is acutely aware of his actors’ facial changes, or the shift of a hand or arm to connote unspoken feelings. The reality that such a traditional Christian environment represses open expressions of sexual desire serves the film’s interests well: A kind of Chekhovian sensibility governs “The Wise Kids,” in that what is inferred, or indirectly suggested, connotes enormous subconscious emotional pressures.
Most impressively, this is an ensemble piece in which no boogeymen are permitted, everyone is observed in shades of gray, and the easy out of making fun of true believers is simply not in the cards. Indeed, Cone preserves considerable love for his Christian characters even as he’s fascinated by and sympathetic to how Brea, the daughter of Pastor Jim (Rodney Lee Rogers), loses her faith as she prepares to move to New York for school.
Kunz, Ross and Torem are remarkable during each of the story’s passages through their final year at home, consistently able to find surprising moments that unveil their characters’ complexities, and driven to avoid cliche. The adults, too, benefit from Cone’s generous conception, including a perf by Rifai that at first appears to be minor but grows more and more significant.
The production package, on ultra-low-budget limitations, with most lensing in Charleston, is highly respectable. Stephanie Dufford’s cinematography is symbiotic with the script’s intimate, actor-centric nature, while capturing some fine moments of beauty, including the final shot. Mikhail Fiksel’s synth-based underscore echoes the film’s subtle aesthetic. Editing is uncredited.