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‘The Revival’: Film Review | Outfest 2017

David Rysdahl (center) in ‘The Revival.’

Jennifer Gerber’s feature debut is about a Southern preacher who has an affair with a troubled young man passing through town.

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.

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.

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
84 minutes