The last thing you see in writer-director Stephen Cone's 2011 film The Wise Kids is its dedication: to the former members of the youth ministry at a Baptist church in Florence, South Carolina. The Wise Kids has been slowly gaining fans via streaming services (it’s available on Amazon Prime and Netflix), as adults recognize in it their own experiences as teenage Christians. The film is in large part about the failures and sins of American church culture—but you can also tell that Cone is honoring the place and community that shaped him.
The Wise Kids starts with the Easter play and ends with the Christmas pageant—high-school senior spring through college-freshman winter. It follows a tight cast of three teens and two adults. At first it seems that these characters will be defined by their demographics. Tim (a coltish Tyler Ross, perpetually wearing an uncomfortable smile) is gay, Brea (Molly Kunz) is questioning her faith, and Laura (Allison Torem, a standout) isn't able to accept either of these things. The adults shepherding the teens—music director Austin (Cone himself) and his wife Elizabeth (Sadieh Rifai)—have their own unspoken longings, which they are totally unprepared to admit or address.
The two characters best-served by the film are Tim and Laura. The scene in which he comes out to her is raw and heartbreaking. She has no idea how to handle this situation with the faith she's been taught: a faith of constant, aggressive optimism, where everything is awesome all the time. “You can't be both,” she says, meaning you can't be Christian and gay; and then, mulishly, “I'll email you the verses.”
A lesser movie would make Laura a mere antagonist, a reprobate who won't leave behind her sinful bigotry and embrace the good news of gay rights. The Wise Kids is not such a movie. It makes the limits of Laura's Christian formation painfully obvious—the only future she can imagine for her friend in the church is an ex-gay future, and she's so blindsided by disagreement that she can respond only with angry defensiveness. But Cone's camera holds Laura's face in tight close-up, letting us into her heart as Torem imbues her with vulnerability and sincere faith. Laura has pretty clearly been taught that educated people despise people like her. She doesn't think she's smart, and so she's got a hair-trigger if she thinks you're calling her stupid. She's needy and she hurts people; and she has courage.
As the movie ended, I realized that my main impression of the Baptist church culture it had portrayed was silence. There's a subplot about the church's hiring decisions, which seems to get dropped for no reason. But I saw that the dropping of the subplot was the point: This decision had become painful for the church, so they all shut up about it.
Similarly, Brea had never been told that lots of believers doubt God. She'd never heard anyone describe their own harrowing or nagging doubts—or how one can have faith without suppressing doubt. There's a full-on atheist in the film; her atheism is treated as a local secret, the kind of thing the adults know but children must be kept from hearing. You can live with a goat, this approach says, but only if everybody pretends her wool is as white and fluffy as the rest. The faith this church produces is bright and thin. Everyone here is unprepared for what love will demand of them.
The Wise Kids is notable for its portrayal of humility. All of the main characters have at least one moment of putting themselves to one side, standing undefended in front of people who love them but don't yet know how to love them well. We see Tim's quiet, frustrated, yet persistent attempts to maintain relationships with people who don't accept him; Laura begging Brea not to leave the faith “lightly,” struggling to find the gentleness hidden in her rigid religion; Brea, the least-developed main character, holding out a hand of friendship and apology when it would be easier to walk away. And the two adult characters, widely separated physically but mouthing silent “I love you”s—a confession so honest that it might somehow be sufficient for them.
I could complain that this film isn't interested in what interests me. I badly want to know why the secret atheist stayed in her Hamlet of Silent Judgment. The psychology of the few who stay has been much less explored than the psychology of the many who leave. I'd also like to see more of Tim's journey. He's winsome to the point of being inscrutable. We get hints that at the start of the movie he still hoped to become straight, and by the end he's dating a guy, but the points in between are left blank.
But this is a film with unusual imaginative generosity. The confrontation scenes are very hard to watch; and, as with many things in the life of faith, their difficulty is their value.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.