Birthday Cake: Bitter Crumbs of a Family Circus

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

There’s sperm in a martini glass, a dead clown, and a cake that looks like a lifeless black baby involved in the plot of the absurd mocumentary Birthday Cake playing at this week’s QFest.  While the gags are fast and plentiful, this swiftly –paced film about a beleaguered gay Hollywood couple (played by the charming Chad Darnell, who also serves as the film’s director and executive producer, and Rib Hillis) and their adopted daughter makes its most lasting impressions when it is serious, tender, and emotionally gripping.

In a quest to throw the ultimate birthday party for their one-year-old adopted daughter, hunky Hollywood actor Steven (Hillis) and screenwriter Daniel (Darnell) pull out all of the stops—a petting zoo, clowns, pirates, and a moon bounce.  What Daniel doesn’t know is that Steve has invited Daniel’s estranged, deeply religious mother, Judith, played with unbelievable dramatic veracity by actress Helen Shaver, to the festivities.  Finally, after years of repressed anger, sadness, and guilt for what both mother and son see as abandonment, Judith and Daniel confront each other.  The resulting scene is, by far, one of the most powerful I’ve viewed at the festival this year.

Shaver’s performance is absolutely astonishing; Judith’s transformation from ashamed and timid to unconditionally loving and accepting of her son and his family is carefully and thoughtfully performed.  We are able to witness a woman who has been conflicted, torn by what she sees as her son’s abandonment of her motherly love—we feel her anguish as she explains how she went from bookstore to bookstore and purchased every book that had the phrase “I have a gay son” after Daniel came out to her in an attempt to educate herself on how she could reach him.  It is in these scenes with Shaver that Darnell’s character feels the most honest and raw.

Yes, there are many campy moments in the film that are cause for laughter, including a complete over-the-top performance from Jane Badler, cast in Daniel’s upcoming television series that is clearly inspired by the now-canceled Smash, where she sings a highly offensive Broadway-style ballad about HIV and gays.  Nevertheless, after the Tuesday evening showing of the film, I had the chance to interview Darnell, who told me he had a recent epiphany: he had been marketing the film to the wrong audience.  This was a movie that related to all audiences, not just those involved with the gay film circuit.  We came to the conclusion that a line used at the start of film can best define its theme: it is a modern-day fairy tale.



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