Film Review: Pray Away ★★★★1/2

Featured in Tribeca 2020’s Awards Competition, Pray Away—which opens at New York’s IFC Center on Friday July 30th and debuts globally on Netflix on Tuesday August 3rd—looks at the destructive history of conservative Christian “reparative therapy”, a shocking misnomer for a practice with no medical or psychological basis. Through the stories of key “defectors” from the movement, the compelling documentary examines a contradictory worldview of trying to help when it’s actually hurting. The condemnation of “conversion therapy” is clear, but the reasons behind its continued existence weave a complex tale of incentives and impossible expectations.

In the 1970s, five men in an evangelical Christian church started a Bible study to help each other leave the “homosexual lifestyle.” Modelled after other church therapy groups, they created a system to help people “overcome” their homosexual urges and to live “normal” Christian lives. A system, it should be noted, administered by misguided but well-meaning amateurs with no formal training. Their stories show the extreme lengths people will go to in an effort to reconcile their spiritual faith with their psychological and physical realities. 

Listening to the stories of the former leaders of these movements it’s fascinating to hear their own logic behind the choice to not only fight against their own same-sex attractions, but to stand up and speak against them. The justifications are intricate and personal.

Pray Away. Courtesy of Tribeca.

“We were doing what we thought God wanted us to do,” says Michael Bussee (the co-founder of the organisation Exodus who left the movement early on). Things only get worse with conservative leaders using the notion of conversion therapy for a larger political agenda, while the “practitioners’” endeavours take on a bizarre mix of the heartfelt desire to help others, combined with celebrity and moral affirmation, further reinforced by a strict reading of religious texts.

“It’s hard to look back,” says Yvette Cantu Schneider, former spokesperson for the Family Research Council, as she watches old VHS tapes which show her helping to light the fuse of the early years of the culture wars that have consumed American politics for decades. Even for the viewer it is hard to watch footage of Schneider denounce the “homosexual agenda” and the “slippery” slope to bestiality and incest. The tired old “moral panic” that continues to used today in some churches, Facebook groups and WhatsApp threads around the world.

Pray Away. Courtesy of Tribeca.

Things are lightened by the story of Julie Rodgers (who we meet preparing to marry her female partner), a younger former leader in the movement, who talks about the sense of community and comfort many found in these groups. Friendships formed with other LGBT youth in the midst of “ex-gay” conventions giving the first glimpse of hope. It’s a brain-twisting development in the murky history of this movement. You can see a snippet of her story on Pray Away’s Facebook page.

Director Kristine Stolakis has taken on this heated topic with a remarkably calm and non-judgemental approach. This is a sober documentary that doesn’t need to actively push your buttons too hard. A desire for atonement rings out from many of the interview subjects and since watching it I have been struggling to reconcile myself to the idea that any of them deserve it. 

Pray Away. Courtesy of Tribeca.

I watched Pray Away two days ago and it’s taken that time for the haze of emotion to die down so I could at least try and write with some clarity. As someone raised in the evangelical church, Pray Away enraged and disheartened me, it awoke resentment in me, it made me want to scream at people of faith. Maybe I should have known when the words Blumhouse appeared in the credits – this is a horror film and it happens to be 100% real. To Stolakis’s credit she has taken the black and white issue of “reparative therapy” (which is undeniably reprehensible) and introduced a degree of grey with these personal stories. Can they, should they be “forgiven”? Is this the LGBTQ+ community’s version of “love the sinner, hate the sin”? 

Pray Away opens and closes with Jeffrey McCall, a self-described “formerly transgender” person who works to free people from the “bondage” of their LGBTQ lives. It is striking that there is no malice or ill-will in his eyes, only a misguided belief that he is doing the right thing. And that’s the most frightening thing of all.

By Chad Armstrong

Pray Away opens in theaters on Friday July 30th in New York City at the IFC Center with Q&As following 5:10pm screenings on July 30th and 31st. Debuts globally on Netflix on Tuesday August 3rd.

Pray Away was featured in the Awards Competition of the postponed Tribeca Film Festival 2020.

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