The inherent conflict between religion and homosexuality is a breeding ground for drama and so it’s no surprise that a variety of queer movies have touched on this subject over the years. Priest, Latter Days, Eyes Wide Openeach tackle similar subject matter from a different stance, but few feel as timely as The Revival, which throws the audience headfirst into the small town mentality that’s come to define the Bible Belt’s stance on homosexuality.
A priest called Eli (David Rysdahl) struggles with his faith while lusting after another man. His wife, June (Lucy Faust), senses something is wrong, but already has her hands full preparing for their firstborn child. Meanwhile, local members of Eli’s parish grapple with their own demons and in the middle of it all is Daniel (Zachary Booth), a homeless drifter who just longs for a lasting connection of any kind.
First time director Jennifer Gerber and screenwriter Samuel Brett Williams grew up together in small town Arkansas and know firsthand the power that religion can hold over local communities in the South. To help make The Revival even more authentic, Gerber decided to return home and shoot her debut in this same location. The result is a remarkably claustrophobic queer drama that takes a magnifying glass to the hypocrisy of religion and its outdated views on homosexuality.
At the centre of the film stands two gripping performances from Rysdahl and Booth whose characters become entangled in something that neither can fully grasp or pull away from, no matter how much they might want to. It all starts innocently enough though. To distract himself from the pressures of a church board member who thinks fire and brimstone tactics could save their shrinking congregation, Eli begins putting all of his energy into a drifter who is clearly in need of some Christian charity. However, it’s not long before Eli’s charitable acts metamorphosize into something less than Christian, at least in the eyes of his god-fearing parish.
Soon after he allows Daniel to stay in his cabin, the preacher accidentally cuts his finger. Acting upon the connection that they’ve shared up to this point, Daniel sucks the blood from Eli’s finger with erotic fervor and then moves down to help him out in another, even more intimate way. In what is perhaps the most well acted scene of the entire movie, Gerber keeps her camera trained on the priest’s face as first ecstasy and then the ramifications of his pleasure play across the features of his face.
Rysdahl isn’t the only one who impresses in The Revival, though. Following his electrifying turn in the film Keep The Lights On, Booth should have become a household name beyond the circle of queer fans on the festival circuit, so we hope that this new role will be the revival that the young star sorely deserves. Although Booth is given less to work with here as the grimy yet adorable meth user, there’s just something so honest and open about his portrayal of Daniel that immediately warms you to the character, even when he’s reluctant to open up with Eli at first.
Booth emotes from underneath the streaks of dirt on his face, winning both us and the preacher over with puppy dog eyes and awkward pronunciations of the name “Proust.” In turn, these furtive glances and awkward attempts at conversation soon give way to genuine joy as his relationship with Eli develops into something authentic, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when their connection inevitably goes down south.
Without spoiling the trajectory of the film, the tragic tropes that used to embody the queer movie genre raise their head once again here thanks to the intervention of characters like Eli’s alcoholic friend, Trevor (Raymond McAnally), and his wife, June, although the morality of the film is more complex than that sounds. On the one hand, audiences can’t help but cheer on the preacher as he wrestles with the call of God and his growing feelings for Daniel, but in doing so, we also condemn the life of June who has always faithfully supported her husband and now carries his child. Every character in The Revival wants something that they can’t have and that’s the real tragedy of this film.
The guilt and shame that the residents of the town feel about themselves continues to smoulder throughout like the hellfire that they each wish to avoid, culminating in a final sequence that will divide audiences who have already decided how they want this film to end. Whether the climax changes the way that you felt about everything that came before or not, it’s hard to deny that Gerber has an eye for slick juxtapositions that ram home the hypocrisy of Eli’s occupation.
However, when she’s not cutting back and forth between gay sex scenes and fiery sermons on the radio, a few pitfalls become apparent. For one thing, not enough time is spent developing the central relationship between Eli and Daniel before the film take a more serious turn and the script’s stage origins occasionally hinder the authenticity that Gerber aims for.
Saying that though, it’s hard not to wince when Eli tells Daniel that he’s ashamed of their love or when June casually describes homosexuality as a “disease.” Showcasing the hatred and ignorance that queer people face in the Bible Belt isn’t exactly revelatory, but there’s something particularly timely about Gerber’s film and her unique insight into this world.
Written during the Bush era, shot during Obama’s Presidency and screened now under the reign of Trump, The Revival explores a conversation that’s more necessary than ever in today’s political climate, providing a sense of urgency that makes Gerber’s debut a must see film.