The Wise Kids is a lovely little film that follows what fleeting moments of uncertainty do to a Baptist community in South Carolina. Uncertainty of adulthood, of God, of friendship, of desiring one’s own husband or one’s own gender. The kids in question are about to graduate from high school and find themselves trying to separate what they actually believe in from what they have simply inherited from above. These are anxious times for friends Brea (Molly Kunz), a preacher’s daughter Googling her way out of her own faith, Tim (Tyler Ross), who’s in the midst of a complicated coming-out process (“I double checked and it’s definitely wrong. I’ll email you the verses,” someone tells him), and Laura (Allison Torem), a devout believer unable to cope with the change inaugurated by those who “think too much.”
Hovering over the narrative is the fear of the domino effect that change can enact, the dread that one person’s “queerness” may perhaps expose everyone else’s. The interesting thing about the film is that, though it’s set in and around a religious community, it explores the general dynamic of deceit of American suburbia par excellence, where everyday existence thrives on repression and all self-torture is excused for the sake of social harmony. If no one can physically see it, it isn’t happening. Since we know that the repressed always returns, we presume we’re in for some good drama. Yet, The Wise Kids refuses to be loud, or shocking, or controversial. It would have been so easy, and probably tempting, to humiliate some of its characters or highlight their hypocrisy in more obviously cathartic ways (think American Beauty or even Happiness). But director Stephen Cone treats his subjects very delicately and the sense of discrete creepiness and melancholia that he crafts for his story, with the help of an outstanding cast, is nothing short of remarkable. These are desperations muffled by too many centuries and from too many avenues for it to ever allow itself to scream, the film seems to suggest. The characters must slither or crawl out of their miserable corners.
Cone’s respect for everyone’s fragility is evident in one of the sweetest scenes in the film when Tim is back from his first semester at the New School and is watching television with his single father. When the man asks if he’s found a “buddy” in New York yet, Tim is touched by the surprisingly tender tone of the question and answers, yes, and that his name is Carter. “Is his last name John?,” his father asks. Then Tim returns the question, “What about you? Any prospects?” The man laughs, caught off guard by the suggestion that something could actually veer off its predetermined path—and still survive.