Oh, to be young and able to see things as only black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. You might find yourself having such thoughts when you see The Wise Kids, the new DVD release from award-winning writer-director Steven Cone and Wolfe Video.
The film follows the lives of three friends. Molly Kunz is Brea, a pastor’s daughter, who is as sensitive and reflective as her best friend Laura (played Allison Torem) is intensely devout. Tyler Ross is Tim, their longtime buddy who has recently “come out.”
The friends’ intertwining stories take place in that restless and often-strange transitional space between high school and college, when the world seems like little more than what can be immediately found, seen, heard, and experienced in their small Southern town.
“My dad is still a Southern Baptist preacher, so I grew up in that environment,” Cone said. He attended church “at least three times a week for the first 18 years of my life,” he said.
Movies offered some escape, he said. As a kid, he first found inspiration in a book about the making of Star Wars.
“That changed my life!” he said. “Soon I was drawing my own movie posters in a notebook and reading every word of every capsule review in the weekly TV guide.”
In no time, he knew he would grow up to do something involving movies – he just wasn’t sure what it would be.
Cone gets his themes across subtly in Wise Kids, and he never settles for easy answers. These childhood friends are about to strike out into the wider world, and he uses that as a metaphor for their expanding consciousness. He also frames the action between several holiday events, opening with an Easter play and ending with a Christmas pageant. In doing so, he cleverly symbolizes not just the turn of the seasons, but also the changing and maturing of the three young people. The nativity signifies a new beginning – the “birth” of the next phase of their lives.
By not making any one individual storyline the sole focus, Cone makes the entire piece much more dramatically satisfying.
“I see it as a communal portrait – a tapestry,” he explains. “I never intended the sexual elements to stick out from Brea’s crisis of faith, Laura’s losing her friends, or anything else.”
He presents Tim as a teen perfectly fine with both who he is and his beliefs. His easy-going father supports him in this, even if the rest of his family (and community) aren’t so open-minded.
When he casually verifies that he does indeed have same-sex inclinations, Laura tells him, “I double-checked, and it’s definitely wrong.”
“OK,” he replies simply, later chuckling to Brea, “Uh … that went well.”
In many ways, Laura is the touchstone for all the action. She believes in a strict, literal interpretation of the Scriptures, and all the goings-on around her only solidify her convictions.
“If you just pick and choose what you like out of the Bible, why is it even important?” she asks. “It‘s the word of God. … We don’t have to like it, but it either is or it isn’t – otherwise, what does it mean?”
Little surprise, but still bittersweet, is how, when her two friends return home for the holidays, she finds she has little in common with them and contentedly lets them all go their own ways. Think what you will of her, though. Laura’s belief is pure and at its very worst, naive.
Laura’s narrowly defined view of spirituality leads Brea to question her own faith, determining that much of what she has been told doesn’t make sense when looked at through modern eyes.
At one point, while helping her rehearse her role as Mary Magdalene in a play, Tim feeds Brea the line, “Why are you so sad?” She pauses momentarily, genuinely unable to answer.
Several secondary characters prove as intriguing as the three leads. For example, Cheryl (played by Sadie Rogers) is the granddaughter of a lovable elderly parishioner. She shares none of the older woman’s beliefs, despite accompanying her to church every Sunday. Eventually, Cheryl even becomes something of a mentor for the questioning Brea.
“I’ve kinda been having my own …,” Brea tries to share with her, unable to completely voice her doubts.
“Yeah?” Cheryl asks nonchalantly. “Do something with them!”
Equally notable is Austin, a role that Cone himself portrays. At first glance, he’s a dedicated and happily married man. Secretly, however, he has a forbidden fascination with Tim – not because he’s into younger guys, but because the lad is one of the only gay people he knows (and certainly the only one at ease with it).
During one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Austin finally comes out to Tim. “I think I might be … like that,” he says with anguish, choking back tears. “And I don’t know what to do.”
Another terrific sequence has Tim and Brea getting together with Cheryl for a big night out at a dance club before the two go off to New York to study. Their evening is brilliantly interspersed and contrasted with Austin’s more subdued, “polite” anniversary evening with his wife. It’s obvious that the younger people are energized and maybe even a bit anxious over the possibilities the night may hold for them, while the married couple’s evening is fraught with underlying apprehension. The romantic awkwardness that all of them experience is deeply dissimilar — in the kids’ case it’s endearing; for the presumably happy couple, it’s painful and empty.
One thing The Wise Kids never fails to be is life-affirming. Each of these characters is universal. After all, aren’t we all questioning at one time or another?
The DVD also includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, titled The Wise Kids: Religion vs. Sexuality. In it, Cone declares, “This is a humanist view of a religious group of people.”
He adds: “The film is observational. The lens doesn’t have a ‘spiritual filter,’ but I think that’s how we learn about each other.”
Above all else, the film’s creator feels that The Wise Kids conveys a simple but powerful truth: “Christian or atheist,” he says, “people are people.”
The Wise Kids is now available on DVD at retailers and video on demand destinations. For more information, go to www.wolfevideo.com.