I just don’t have the words to express how amazing The Wise Kids is. Smart, moving, thoughtful, relentlessly positive? It’s all those things and more. I left the theatre all warm and happy and uplifted. Not bad for a movie about gayness and Evangelical Christianity, eh?
This is the story of three friends, over the summer before they leave their South Carolina town for college: we have Laura, hardcore and devout, planning to go to a religious college not far away; Tim, equally devout, gay and quite okay with it, dreaming of going to film school in New York City; Brea, the preacher’s daughter who’s starting to doubt her faith, also headed for New York.
One of the stunning things about this movie is how it avoids the more annoying cliches of coming-out stories: there’s no gay-bashing scene, no gay angst, no fire-and-brimstone sermons, no harsh us-vs-them divisions. Tim starts out comfortably gay and confident that God loves him no matter what. The worse that happens to him is Laura and a couple of others saying it’s wrong and a sin, but they never reject him. His family also tentatively accepts him, though he doesn’t seem out to the rest of his community and it’s not clear how they would feel.
This movie made me think about faith. Now, you all know I’m an atheist. I have no use for religion, superstition, holy books, and all that jazz. I believe that on the whole, faith-based and magical thinking are not positive things. But The Wise Kids drew me into these kids’ world and made me sympathetic to their beliefs, or at least how they live their beliefs.
Laura’s faith is a rock, an anchor, in her words as solid and real as a chair or her close friendship with Brea (I won’t take apart that simile). She believes that the Bible is the literal Word of God, every line of it. You can’t pick and choose what you believe; either the entire Bible is holy, or none of it is. And some might say that very solidity is a comfort, but it’s also mixed with fear: specifically, that Brea and Tim are going to hell and she won’t get to be with them in Heaven. And like an anchor her faith is holding her in place: of her circle she’s the only one who’s not moving far away for college, and the only one who will attend a religious school. But maybe, just maybe, that’s okay. Maybe she’ll be happy not blazing trails or exploring the world, but taking care of sick animals in her community.
Tim’s faith is a light, brightening the world around him. His God is not in a book, but everywhere: God’s love is evident in the sun and the sky, the birds and flowers, and the hearts of all the people around. During the movie he was almost always goofy and smiling and cheerful (and when he wasn’t it was for a damn good reason). There’s no fear in him, and though he promised to keep Brea in his prayers every night, I didn’t get the impression he was afraid of God smacking her down for being an unbeliever—because his God is as loving as he is.
Brea’s faith is a puzzle, to be questioned and examined. She starts out small, openly wondering if “because our elders say so” is a good enough reason to believe something, soon moving on to googling “bible contradictions” and “religions before christ”. All attempts to discuss her doubts are dismissed with reassurances that doubting is a phase that everyone goes through, and God is bigger than her questions. To which she replies, “What does that mean?” And is then told to stop thinking so much.
I thought Brea’s first tentative steps towards unbelief were treated well, with very realistic questions that a doubting believer would have. Most of all, the audience isn’t hit over the head with a “religion is false” anvil, which would have been totally inappropriate for this kind of movie.
Though the movie does take pains to portray this Evangelical community fairly, it’s hardly all sweetness and light. Underneath an aggressive Jesus-fueled cheerfulness, there’s a dark underbelly of hypocrisy, pain and confusion: special mention goes to the pastor coming to grips with his gayness. The first time we saw him I thought he’d be played for laughs, a stereotypically queeny control freak directing the church’s Easter pageant, clearly attracted to Tim. Things get serious when he actually makes a pass at Tim (and immediately regrets it). Things get very serious when he comes out to Tim at Christmas, and plaintively adds, “but I don’t know what to do!”
Even then, the movie doesn’t dwell on angst. We don’t know where their paths will take them, but I don’t doubt for a second that these three kids are going to be okay, each in their own way, and so is the pastor. If that’s faith, it’s a faith I can live with.