The Wise Kids (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Within a few months, several young people of a South Carolinian Baptist church will make their way onto their respective universities. Brea (Molly Kunz) begins to question her faith, Tim (Tyler Ross) deals with how those closest to him respond to his homosexuality, and Laura (Allison Torem) overcompensates in her devotion to God in response to the changes around her.
Written and directed by Stephen Cone, “The Wise Kids” possesses and maintains a quiet power as it navigates its way through tricky whirlpools that, if engaged, might lead to crippling clichés. By avoiding to show us scenes that we come to expect, like a coming out of the closet sequence, focus is established on the thoughts and intentions of the young adults rather than of those around them. Further, its simplicity is coupled with a believable close-knit religious community and natural performances.
It can be argued that one of the weaknesses of the picture is that a lot of its scenes contain drawn-out silences. On the contrary, I found it to be a strength because it highlights the disconnect among the principal players. This technique is most effectively employed during scenes between Austin (Stephen Cone) and Elizabeth (Sadieh Rifai). Although they have been married for almost eight years, Elizabeth does not know–but may be in suspicion–that her husband is gay. Their conversations, very brief and holding no particular importance, carry a sad detachment with shots of the husband always walking away from his wife. Though we suspect the fate of the subplot, we are not given easy answers.
The film is at its best when the trio are allowed to articulate how they really feel, whether it is about faith, friendship, or the future. I was most curious about Laura because I have met (good) people like her. Because she considers it a requirement to abide by the scriptures fully in order to be a true follower of God, she fails to realize that this might be a limitation from personal growth. For instance, when she finds out that Tim is gay, instead of showing support for a friend, she begins to say things like showing him lines in the Bible that states, therefore “proving,” homosexuality is wrong. There is a layer of contradiction because is not the act of accepting those who are different hand-in-hand with being a follower of God? Brea has good reasons to doubt.
One of the shining interactions is between Tim and his single father (Lee Armstrong). There is a freshness and optimism in their relationship because even though the father is aware of his son’s sexuality, he strives to make an effort to stay connected to his son through the awkwardness. It’s so nice to see a father’s acceptance of his gay son in a way that feels real. It is not shown enough, at least not on this level, in the movies. What they have is so authentic, we can imagine a time in the past when there must have been heavy tension between them. It is without a doubt that these are two are experiencing a transition whose love for one another is strengthened by the passing days.
“The Wise Kids” is about discovery. The characters learn from each other, but they also learn about themselves by helping themselves. They learn to take risks and breathe outside their bubble. With each month that goes by, we see them grow up just a little but the differences are quietly profound. It feels right that nothing is dramatized.