Independent drama The Wise Kids is the rare film that tackles the thorny subjects of religion and sexuality without pandering or condemning. Set around a Baptist church in Charleston, South Carolina, the film follows three teenagers as they prepare to go out into the world alone. A preacher's daughter struggles with doubt; the gay son of a single father risks condemnation in a religious community; and a third friend struggles to find balance between her religious beliefs as prescribed and practiced. The Wise Kids is skillfully directed by Stephen Cone, who subtly acknowledges issues of social and religious pressure without condemning one side or resulting to caricature. What could have been a preachy, abrasive film is both entertaining and enlightening.
Friends Brea (Molly Kunz), Tim (Tyler Ross) and Laura (Allison Torem) find themselves at the end of their high-school careers. Raised in the company of a conservative Baptist congregation, the trio is forced to confront their beliefs and virtues head-on as they begin questioning their surroundings. Tim starts to publicly acknowledge that he is gay, which upsets devout Laura, who considers this a sin but desperately and genuinely wants her friend to find salvation. Brea loses touch with her religion, which also upsets Laura, and confides in Tim that she may no longer believe in God. In a refreshing twist, The Wise Kids does not make the conservative Christian community members unaccepting villains. Tim's brother confronts Tim about his sexuality after finding incriminating material on Tim's computer. The younger sibling is upset and confused, but Tim's father - who would have been an easy character to make ignorant - is thoughtfully accepting. Also involved are pastor Austin (played by director Cone) and his wife Elizabeth (Sadieh Rifai). Austin is also gay, and Elizabeth struggles to remain faithful to their strained marriage.
The film catches its audience off guard by teasing a dip into blunt sermonizing before switching gears and becoming a thoughtful, realistic portrait of young adults finding their comfort zones. Cone is able to show through Laura the conflict that arises when religious principles and unscripted reality clash. Laura is frightened that Tim and Brea are damning themselves, and is upset when outsiders criticize her values. Laura is refreshingly genuine in her emotions, and deals in compassion rather than hypocrisy. Brea and Tim befriend a local woman who is revealed to be both an atheist and a lesbian, and, in another showing of diplomacy, the film avoids making her some anti-religious zealot.
Cone pulls strong performances from his young actors, and the cast is impressive across the board. The film tackles difficult subjects without making any one party "right." The Wise Kids is honest in its reminder that everyone is unique, and religion does not always create division. The players in the film's game of life are open and loving, and, when their values are questioned, look inside themselves rather than lashing out at others or condemning the unfamiliar. If only this happened more often in reality.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is sharp and clear, with good detail and texture. Black levels are steady, and colors well saturated. Compression artifacts are minimal, and I noticed no edge enhancement or digital sharpening.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is nicely balanced, and dialogue is crystal clear. Ambient effects waft through the surround speakers, and the pounding music in a nightclub solicits subwoofer response. An English 2.0 stereo track is also included, as are English subtitles.
The disc includes a short making-of featurette, The Wise Kids: Behind the Scenes (13:30), which features interviews with the crew and offers an interesting look at the film's production. Religion and Sexuality in The Wise Kids (10:42) is a frank discussion about the film's themes and difficult topics, and Cone discusses how he managed to create an honest film without pandering to a particular audience. The film's trailer (2:10) is also included.
Subtle and affecting, The Wise Kids follows three South Carolina teenagers as they are forced to reckon their conservative Baptist upbringings with the outside world. Instead of creating a religious community that condemns, Director Stephen Cone films characters that are genuine and honest. The Wise Kids is an authentic discussion of sexuality and religion, as well as the struggles of growing up and moving out. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.