At the Starbucks in Lincoln Square, a woman approaches the table where I’m interviewing Stephen Cone and gushes excessively over his role as Michael, the predictable and palatable friend in Philip Dawkins’s summer smash The Homosexuals. As a Cone fan, she ain’t seen nothing yet.
In The Wise Kids, a new film opening Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival on Thursday 3, writer-actor-director Cone digs deep into his Southern roots to create a slow and contemplative drama about the way in which a deeply religious upbringing informs a trio of teenagers and the community around them. Its Reeling appearance marks the first time a local filmmaker has opened the fest in its 30-year history.
In person, Cone (whose previous films include The Christians and In Memoriam) seems too self-effacing for such a coveted distinction. Short in stature, but with a tuft of gravity-defying hair that adds several inches to his frame, he’s a loquacious and effusive guy whose deliberate speaking manner and occasional eye fluttering mirrors his nerdy Homosexuals alter ego.
Although his speech has lost most of its Southernness, Cone was raised in South Carolina, a rigid notch, if not the buckle, in the Bible Belt where the film takes place. Inspiration was pulled from his church upbringing. “I literally grew up 18 years, three times a week at church at least,” says Cone, 31, whose own father was a Southern Baptist preacher. The Wise Kids hums with the unspoken desires of the church folk who populate that world. “It’s wondering what their lives are like, what their sadness is, what they do at night, who they want to be with,” he says.
In The Wise Kids we meet Brea, the preacher’s daughter and a tacit nonbeliever; Tim, a mostly out gay teen who reconciles his faith with his homosexuality; and Laura, an exuberant follower of Christ whose rigid interpretation of the Bible strains her friendships. Percolating at the film’s edges are closeted music director Austin (played with tender wounds by Cone), and his devout but suspecting wife, Elizabeth. Homosexuality is hinted at in a third peripheral character as well. “If you’re making a movie about the private pain of Southern religious people,” says Cone, “it’s impossible to do that without addressing all the closeted and single bisexual or gay men that one has encountered growing up in the Southern church.”
The film not only addresses the generational differences in a South that is rapidly changing, but also sidesteps the kinds of religious clichés Hollywood loves. Its treatment of the church, while stern in places, is also charitable. “I’m pushing against more one-dimensional, condescending portraits of faith,” says Cone. “I have a great affection for this particular group of people in real life. I haven’t really seen them portrayed as sort of deeply flawed and human.” (Cone has a find in Allison Torem, who plays the devout Laura as breathlessly devoted to God.)
The film opened at Outfest in L.A. in July and more recently finished a seven-city tour of small, Southern cities. Cone says reactions to the film run the gamut. “People in the South have not necessarily considered who their 55-year-old organist may be longing to sleep with,” says Cone. “They may not have much to say afterward but may send me a novel via e-mail that night.” On the other hand, “There have been gay, middle-aged men in Los Angeles and New York who have become very emotional after seeing the movie. I don’t want to discount that portion of the audience.”
The Wise Kids opens Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival Thursday 3.