From a doc made by a former cult member to Jane Austen as she’s never been adapted before, here are some under-the-radar films to keep an eye out for this June.
1. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) is turning 17. He's coming to terms with the fact that he likes boys, a revelation complicated by the fact that he's the son of an evangelical preacher, Pastor Bob (Pat Healy). Over the course of 24 hours, director Stephen Cone's film weaves its way through the preparation for his birthday, the suburban pool party in celebration, and the aftermath, doing impressive justice not just to Henry, but also to the large ensemble attending the shindig. Among those characters are Henry's religious and secular friends, including the guy (Daniel Kyri) nursing an obvious crush on the handsome, golden birthday boy; the older sister who's home from Christian college and struggling with her faith; a young man with mental health issues who doesn't get the support he needs at a crucial moment; and the various adults from Bob's church.
Outside of the conservative-skewing faith-based film market, indie cinema hasn't had a great track record with portrayals of Christianity, tending to use it as shorthand for hypocrisy or a lack of sophistication when it shows up at all. Cone, the son of a Southern Baptist choir director, has by no means made a faith-based movie, but he's made one that treats faith seriously and without condescension. While his characters wrestle with their beliefs or the edicts that accompany them, they're not portrayed as trapped or fooled by religion — it's a part of their lives, a relationship that shifts and changes just as they do.
How to see it: Henry Gamble's Birthday Party is now available on DVD and for digital rental and purchase.
2. Holy Hell
For two decades, Holy Hell director Will Allen was a member of a cult — not that he or any of the other members called it that, not until they painfully extricated themselves from what was then known as « The Buddhafield. » It started as a New Age collective (« Our little utopia in the middle of this big giant city, » as one interviewee puts it). It was not just a spiritual endeavor, but an instant West Hollywood family of beautiful, like-minded young people who lived together and shared a sense of connection they'd be unable to find anywhere else. Allen was the group's videographer, documenting their gatherings in the '80s and '90s, and creating earnest, cheesy films at the bidding of their teacher, an enigmatic man named Michel.
It's those years of footage that make Allen's documentary so enthralling, telling the sad if familiar story of getting drawn into a controlling and damaging organization from the inside, and capturing the long slide from idealism into heartbreak on camera. Holy Hell, raw and anguished, is not just a story about a terrible breach of trust, but one of loss, its creator mourning the relationships he had. If the notion of how someone can wind up in a cult has remained a little abstract for you, Allen's film should change that with its frog-in-a-slowly-heating-pot perspective. It showcases the ways in which the desire to belong can be preyed upon, and how people can hide or ignore their own mistreatment because they so badly need to preserve the lie they've been sold.
How to see it: Holy Hell is now in theaters in limited release. You can find a list of locations here.