I don’t know shit about Jesus. I was raised atheist in NJ and the only “thumpers” I encountered were animated and in Disney films. I do not, however, live under a rock, and word on the street is Southern Baptists don’t like fags. Now the afore-linked-to website is one extreme example of extreme Christianity being extremely lame, but it’s often what most of us (non-Christian queer folk) think of when we hear the word “Baptist,” Southern or otherwise. Thankfully, writer/director/producer Stephen Cone’s 2011 film, The Wise Kids shows a different, softer side to the faith.
The film is about three, Baptist BFFs in South Carolina, on the verge of adulthood/high school graduation – one of whom happens to be dealing with is sexuality (read: gay). I almost gave this film the SCARED STRAIGHTS label (reserved for films whose gay plot lines serve to give street(meat)-cred to an otherwise heterosexual film), but then thought twice. In interviews, Cone himself even marvels at the inclusion of this film in gay film festivals, citing his use of a gay storyline as a simple representation of stories he’d encountered in his own Southern Baptist upbringing. However, I felt that the gay characters (there’s one more, but I won’t tell you who! it’s a surprise!!) are critically required for the successful balance of the film’s humble musing tendency and its larger socio-critical exposé nature. Surprisingly enough to this Yankweer, not all people who come out in the South get beat up and shunned from their churches. News to me.
When gayby boy Tim (played by Tyler Ross, a male, tween Dreya Weber, having starred in several homoflix – including the soon-to-be reviewed Harold and Maude knock-off, Nate & Margaret) comes out to his single-father, friends, and community, he’s met with hardly a grumble. In fact one of the only open dissenters is his brother, who, in a beach scene, timidly calls Tim’s new-found sexuality, “sick”. Fear not. This mildly displeased sentiment doesn’t lead to the typical gang beat-up scene after school, nor even further family turmoil at home. In fact, Tim is a young, gay, and faithful character who moves into adulthood smoothly, while retaining his devotion to God. Who knew it was possible!?
Another character in the film that seems miffed by Tim’s orientation revelation is Jesus-freak bestie, Laura – honestly portrayed by Allison Torem (best known for her role of “Angry Teenager” on one episode of Shameless). Laura’s personal struggle seems much graver than Tim’s. She’s a good, young, Christian woman trying to get by in a world of heathens, going from friend to friend, trying to find someone that takes Jesus as seriously as she does. In her (surprisingly not overtly lesbo) dreams, she and third bestie Brea, will live happily ever after at the state college, and subsequently in heaven. When Brea, the preacher’s daughter (played by Molly Kunz) starts to question her faith and decides to join Tim at NYU instead, Laura’s world falls apart. Here’s where the CRYING comes in. What ensues is a mellow-paced, simple collection of vignettes that show each character dealing with their various adolescent issues. Framed by careful cinematography and basic beautiful dialogue, we are welcomed into the minds of these three “wise” kids and get to live in that special and delicate epoch of pre-adulthood for a cool 95 minutes.
I, for one, being a recently-turned-30-something who hasn’t questioned his faith for over half his life, reveled in the prospect of getting put back into that shaky, teenage headspace for a spell. For some reason the safeness of the dramatic circumstances doesn’t restrict the character development or the plot, nor seem to be representative of a risk-fearing filmmaker. Instead the lack of stereotypical gay-hating behavior allows the viewer a more truthful take on the Southern Christian experience – one that was able to warm even this wizened, Northern atheist’s heart.
Oh, and if you don’t feel like turning back time with some absorbing teenage catharsis, there happens to be an alternate, totally adult, totally tumultuous, faith-based storyline for you to latch on to – portrayed by Cone himself as the local church music director. And no, it doesn’t get creepy. Well sort of not… Enjoy!