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With an attention-grabbing hook and two riveting central performances, Jennifer Gerber’s feature directorial debut The Revival holds you in its grip even when it stumbles. Adapted from a 2010 play by Samuel Brett Williams, this striking, if erratic, drama about a Southern Baptist preacher succumbing to a very forbidden desire is hardly a game-changing or groundbreaking entry in the nebulous, gradually expanding genre that is queer cinema. But it is a worthwhile one, showcasing a pair of deeply gifted leading men and a promising new talent behind the camera. The Revival is also notable for its unblinking look at the excruciating inner tug-of-war between one man’s homosexuality and his religious devotion; the movie isn’t subtle or always persuasive, but it goes there, boldly and with integrity.
Films like Antonia Bird’s Priest (about a gay priest in Liverpool) and Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s moving doc Trembling Before G-d (about gay Orthodox Jews) have tackled similar subject matter — though the The Revival‘s setting amid small-town, working-class evangelicals feels particularly timely given the reinvigorated cultural war pitting Trump’s rural conservative base against urban “elites.” It’s a milieu the director knows well, having been raised by devout Christians in Hot Springs, Ark., where the play is set and the movie was shot. Gerber’s familiarity likely accounts for the confident, unshowy sense of place that’s one of the film’s key strengths.
The protagonist is Eli (David Rysdahl, who looks like Jon Cryer crossed with Eddie Redmayne and sounds like Girls‘ Alex Karpovsky), a young Harvard-educated preacher recently returned to his hometown with pregnant wife June (Lucy Faust). Brainy and introspective, Eli has taken over services at his late father’s struggling church, where he delivers cerebral sermons intended to “bring progressive thinking” to tradition-bound parishioners.
It’s an uphill battle, especially since the board is pressuring Eli to go full fire-and-brimstone in order to compete with flashy mega-churches popping up nearby. At the insistence of a particularly pushy board member, the burly recovering alcoholic and avid hunter Trevor (Raymond McAnally), Eli agrees to host a revival to help boost attendance and fill the coffers.
Meanwhile, Eli’s personal life takes an unexpected turn. At a church potluck, he meets homeless drifter Daniel (the superb Zachary Booth, who gave what should have been a star-making performance in Ira Sachs’ underseen Keep the Lights On). He may have streaks of dirt on his face and strings of unwashed hair, but with his chiseled cheekbones, teasing eyes and hip hoodie/army jacket combo, Daniel’s quite the grunge dreamboat; it only takes a flirty comment (“Pretty hands,” he tells Eli) and one charmingly mispronounced name (Daniel refers to classic French author Proust as “Prowst“) for Eli to fall hard and fast.
With unimpeachable Christian charity, as well as a few subconscious ulterior motives, Eli provides his new acquaintance shelter in a deep-woods cabin he owns. When he stops by to check on him a few days later, Eli accidentally cuts his finger; Daniel grabs it, pulling it to his mouth and sucking the blood. The moment is joltingly erotic, and soon the two are embracing hungrily, Eli’s face widening into an ecstatic grin and then collapsing into tears as the magnitude of his transgression dawns on him. Rysdahl turns the scene into a tour de force of authentic, bracingly un-actory emotion.
“I have these feelings, but normally I can stuff ’em down,” Eli confides in Daniel, and the film’s second half chronicles his increasing difficulty in doing just that. Gerber deftly wrings suspense from source material that mixes, and sometimes swerves between, romance, satire and vigilante thriller. And she knows how to frame her two main actors, making effective use of close-ups and two-shots to convey the rapidly rising temperature of their relationship.
There are shades of French master Claude Chabrol both in the broad outlines of The Revival — in its close study of a man’s guilt and a community’s rottenness beneath a squeaky-clean surface — and in Gerber’s approach: the brisk narrative rhythm, the slyly humorous juxtapositions (gay love scenes punctuated by glimpses of Eli driving home while listening to fiery sermons on the radio), Lucas Carey’s mischievous, mercurial score.
Many of the movie’s flaws seem attributable to pitfalls of the stage-to-screen transition. The schematic nature of the drama, with its stark character shifts and whiplash-inducing denouement, feels better suited to a play than a film; The Revival is ultimately more interested in advancing arguments about the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of religious orthodoxy than in presenting plausibly fleshed-out people and situations.
Daniel, especially, comes off more as a symbol — of temptation, of freedom — than a fully dimensional human being. Booth is such a fine actor that he allows glimmers of an inner life to shine through the young man’s inscrutable facade, but the movie is stingy when it comes to scenes of him and Eli together. We don’t spend enough time with the two of them to believe in their connection as anything much more than a plot device — a catalyst for Eli’s crisis.
Gerber and Williams have “opened up” the play, making room for a new character, a dimwit (Stephen Ellis) who comes to Eli for advice about his attraction to a comely cousin. But the addition feels like a cheap shot — those backward country folk! — and distracts from the far more intriguing central pair. Trevor is also more grotesque in his idiocy than he need be, a figure who embodies the story’s notions of religious small-mindedness a bit too neatly. Of the supporting players, the standout is Faust as Eli’s watchful wife; the actress nails her climactic moment, a speech of quietly unleashed domestic rage that’s part Lady Macbeth, part Elizabeth Proctor and altogether chilling.
The Revival‘s portrayal of the vitriol reserved for gay people in conservative Christian communities is nothing if not unsparing. But given our ostentatiously pious vice president and his disturbing record on LGBT issues, there’s something urgent, even cathartic, about the film’s bluntness. And Gerber manages to add nuance through certain directorial choices, like her use of recordings by the Sacred Harp Singers of Cork. The stirring flights of church-choir harmony lighten the movie’s mood, suggesting that while there’s potential for violence and hatred in religion, there’s beauty, too.
Production companies: Natural State Films, Raptor Films
Director: Jennifer Gerber
Screenwriter: Samuel Brett Williams (based on his play)
Cast: David Rysdahl, Zachary Booth, Lucy Faust, Raymond McAnally, Stephen Ellis
Producer: Sophie Finkelstein
Co-producer/sales: Stephen Stanley
Executive producers: Cathleen Ihasz, Nicole Ihasz
Cinematography: John Wakayama Carey
Production design: Eimi Imanishi
Music: Lucas Carey
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