God, Sex and Smalltown America 

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The Wise Kids
Directed by Stephen Cone

The Wise Kids is a lovely ensemble piece about three teenagers—Tim (Tyler Ross), Brea (Molly Kunz), and Laura (Allison Torem) —in Charleston, South Carolina, whose social lives revolve around each other and the Baptist church they all belong to. Loosely structured as a year in their lives, starting a semester before they graduate from high school and ending when they're all home from college for Christmas break, it starts and ends as Austin (Stephen Cone), an adult member of their congregation, directs them in the church's annual Christmas play.

The rehearsal scenes are done with a wry affection that feels like Waiting for Guffman without the comic exaggeration, especially when Austin tries to coax more emotion out of a wooden Brea or the camera, oozing homoerotic tension, does a slow pan up the fake-blood-painted torso of the boy who's playing the crucified Christ.

Cone, who also wrote and directed the movie, has a real gift for conveying emotion through looks and body language, so it's clear to us from the start that Austin is gay, though he's so deep in the closet it takes him most of the year to come out to himself. Meanwhile, Tim is quietly and gracefully figuring out how to accept his own sexuality without rejecting a church that teaches that being gay is a sin.

Both Austin's and Tim's stories are given plenty of time and space to unspool. So is the parallel frustration and dawning understanding of Austin's wife Elizabeth (Sadieh Rifai), who evolves so dramatically that she seems transformed physically, going from dowdy and ungainly to downright beautiful. Yet the main character is arguably Brea, the preacher's daughter who is losing faith in her religion, and Laura also gets her due. Meanwhile, like a friendly neighbor, the film takes frequent side trips to check out minor characters.

Everyone's struggles are deeply felt and clearly conveyed without any of the shouting matches, paralyzing illnesses, or soul-searching-in-the-bathroom-mirror that sensationalized a devout woman's struggle with her faith in Higher Ground. A shot of Brea's father's face after she deflects an offer to say grace tells us all we need to know about what it meant for her to do that, and how hard it must have been for her.

The organic feel of the interactions, the authenticity of the dialogue, and the respect for all the characters—including the kids' loving and supportive parents and their sometimes not so understanding siblings—gives The Wise Kids the feel of thinly fictionalized autobiography. Cone clearly knows and loves this place and these people, and we wind up feeling as if we know them too.

Before settling into the movie's non-pandering vibe, I kept bracing myself for capital-d drama. When Laura rejected Tim after learning he's gay while Brea kept hanging out with him, I was sure the best friends were about to become enemies for a while, until the inevitable reunion, and I was pretty sure Tim and Austin's evident attraction for each other was going to end in tragedy. But the characters kept acting like real and reasonable people instead, being kind to each other, saying thoughtful and unexpected things, struggling to understand one another.

In the end, I think, that mutual love and respect is the movie's real subject. More important than any one of the personal crises in The Wise Kids is what they all have in common: the characters' insistence on finding a way to be true to themselves without losing the intimate relationships that keep them grounded. That starts with their families and friends, but it also includes the their congregation, a truly loving and mostly nurturing community.

Opens March 16 at the reRun Gastropub Theater

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