Synopsis: A powerful exposé on gay conversion programs, revealing the damage inflicted by shame and repression through intimate testimonies from current members and former leaders of the pray the gay away movement.
Stars: Julie Rodgers, Randy Thomas, Yvette Cantu Schneider, John Paulk, Jeffrey McCall
Director: Kristine Stolakis
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Have I gotten too cold in my old age? I asked myself that question a few times during Pray Away because the film didn’t make me as sad as I thought it would. Oh, it made me mad alright and I’m glad I was able to watch it in my home and not in a theater when talking back to the screen would have been a given, but I kept thinking director Kristine Stolakis was going after something other than our anger-response button. I’m the type of person that will sob through a live-action Disney movie from fifty years ago (a recent rewatch of Pollyanna from 1960 wrecked me…don’t judge if you haven’t watched it lately) but could Stolakis wring a single tear from me during her exploration of the rise of gay conversion programs over the last five decades?
I’ve thought about this a lot since I saw Pray Away and I’m wondering if it has less to do with the subject (important) and more to do with the people that are interviewed about the subject (again, subject = important). While documenting the rise of Exodus, an anti-gay program designed to “cure” men and women of their gay lifestyle choices and showing the effect of Exodus and other church-sponsored programs like it has on the “cured” and their families is pivotal in understanding continued wrongheadedness, it only goes so far. Helping the discussion further along is interviewing survivors of these programs who talk openly about their experience, what it was like, and how they came out the other side.
What I didn’t find as helpful in the overall case being made by the director was the interviews with the former heads of these groups (gay men and a former lesbian, now bisexual, woman) who essentially turned their backs on the communities they were a part of, denied who they were, and forced others just like them into doing the same. Like watching the HBO series The Vow last year about former cult members that got out then turned their friends in to the FBI, the longer I spent with the main interviewees, the less I sympathized with them. There’s a lack of accountability that’s frustrating to listen to as well, and it’s not like they don’t all recognize the pain they caused or the long-lasting effect their work had on laws and public mindset either. While one person interviewed does express some true remorse and it feels genuine, I wish we’d seen others as contrite and/or in action working to undo the series of knots they tied.
The film finds surest footing when it stays with Julie, a lesbian preparing for her wedding while going back over her time in a conversion program she eventually became a leader in. Hearing her journey is the real heart of the piece and where the thesis of Pray Away is actually found. This brave woman came out to her parents and instead of supporting her they brought her to their church who tried to change her, eventually convincing her that she could lead others like her to change as well. It’s only when she’s confronted face-to-face with the realities of what her organization has done to people does she wake up to the hurt she’s caused and what’s she’s been neglecting to own up to in her own life. That’s when Pray Away is firing on all cylinders. Strangely, this footage is taken from a program years ago on another network…and it’s some of the most moving in the entire film.
By remaining neutral on the issue for the most part, Stolakis is able to get close to a convert who has been “cured” and has joined others in mobilizing outside of organized programs, getting out on the street and talking to people one on one. These are some of the scariest moments of the film because listening to this group talk and the fear that is instilled by (sorry to say it, men that are clearly repressing their homosexuality), you can see why so many LGBTQ+ people are routinely murdered by people that have had unrealistic portrayals of the gay community shown to them.
Already brought to life on a larger Hollywood scale recently in Boy Erased, gay conversion programs are still in the spotlight and remain a hot button issue. In that respect, it’s important for documentaries like Pray Away to present their viewpoints so more people can bear witness to the devastation the conversion programs have…and how ineffective they actually are. Since people are born gay, you can’t covert to anything…you can change behavior, but you can’t change what’s on the inside in your heart.