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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.
Characters - Film - Tim - Laura - Scene
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....
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