Despite featuring no murders, no financial scheming and no lurid kidnappings, Pray Away is a misguided true crime documentary. Director Kristine Stolakis’ look at Christian gay conversion therapy, AKA the “pray away the gay” movement, through interviews with those that once led the charge is a painful behind-the-scenes look at one of the cruelest endeavors undertaken by institutionalized homophobia. Increasingly banned around the world, the tortuous psychological process attacks the mind with religious doctrine like Walter Freeman attacked mens’ prefrontal cortices with ice picks and the U.K. government attacked Alan Turing’s hormones with diethylstilbestrol. Pray Away lays bare the evil, the self-loathing people behind it and—to a lesser extent—those who’ve survived it, while all too briefly nodding towards the powerful and inextricable ties between Christianity, capitalism and the ever-radicalizing political right that keep it alive. There is value in the hindsight found in the film, but it’s more often an off-putting test of our empathetic limits filmed as incuriously as possible.
Over the past decade, conversion therapy’s really only been in headlines as states outlawed the practice or as President Barack Obama condemned it. During the ‘90s, it was a different story. People like John Paulk were on the talk show circuit, touting their new lifestyles and new spouses (usually “ex-gay” like they purported to be), and preaching the good word—of both Christianity and of organizations like Exodus International that pushed this lucrative therapy. Paulk and those like him—including Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee, vice president Randy Thomas and head of women’s ministries Yvette Cantu Schneider—are Pray Away’s main talking heads.
Exodus shut down after nearly 40 years and a handful of apologies in 2013, allowing the true believers to spin off to associated organizations with similarly supervillainous names like Exodus Global Alliance. Though Stolakis’ framing isn’t specifically targeted as such, the film still sees the doc’s former leaders (all now living openly queer lives) as an exercise in presentation and performance. It offers the sweaty, smug, rehearsed assurance of their professional gay-hating heyday in archival footage, not-quite juxtaposed with the comfortable modern-day interviews involving professing regret and chopping garlic with hunky young beaus. It’s not the first thing on the doc’s mind, but there is an unintended examination of comfort levels, facades and offensively deployed defense mechanisms. With happy home lives, these former execs got to see their self-loathing successfully erode—something that many they pushed conversion on did not as, among other reasons, they’re more than twice as likely to attempt suicide.
But Pray Away doesn’t only feel like a vehicle for these ashamed ex-leaders to crawl back, tails between their legs. The movie gives a half-assed attempt to juggle its contradictions—not so much of bloody-handed hatemongers living happy queer lives, but of people finding solace within religious structures that were the source of their pain in the first place—through its secondary subjects: Julie Rodgers, a conversion therapy survivor preparing for marriage, and Jeffrey McCall, a visible continuation of the religion-based ex-gay charge. The doc has plenty of compassion for McCall, but doesn’t directly interrogate his viewpoint or that of those around him. It barely indirectly interrogates it, without much in the way of meaningfully connected editing. It merely observes, ostensibly waiting for him to have his own breakthrough in however many decades so he can speak about the harm he once pushed.
Rodgers’ sections are far more moving, despite some uninspired filmmaking (we watch as she scrolls through a Word doc, reading aloud), simply because it’s the only time we actually get a sense of the movement’s human impact. We finally get some detail, some emotion, personalizing pain that is otherwise sanitized with a corporate lens. Rather than analyses of how a gay-to-straight narrative is meticulously crafted or how a slippery slope argument is tactically employed, we hear unexpected details about how, after the leadership went to bed, after-hours Exodus convention hangouts provided many with their first queer communities. As sad as it is, it’s a complex moment where you realize that bittersweetness was the most many could hope for. We also hear how the intense coercion and pressure demolished her self-image. Rodgers may be marrying her wife in an extravagant church, but even in her wedding dress, the literal scars from conversion therapy are visible.
The doc dances around suicide, self-harm and hate crimes—the unspoken specters of which constantly shadow the proceedings—really only touching on physical and psychological consequences through Rodgers’ own work, brief confrontational archival footage and some final on-screen text. It’s the kind of kid-glove treatment that afflicts the entire film—that keeps its critique of religion and conservative politics (not to mention all the money helping fund these organizations and efforts) almost entirely away from Christianity. With all the hypocrisy on display, including but not limited to the “homophobia actually means repression” thing that has become a damaging trope in its own right, it’s incredible how little the film wants to talk about the religion propping up this hate in anything but the best light. It feels as cheap and facile as the film’s production affectations, watching as mics are attached and clapperboards snap.
Providing context as it goes through the history of Exodus and the gay conversion movement, Pray Away could’ve done more than seek empathy for the self-loathing disciples of a hateful institution. It could’ve addressed why they hated themselves in the first place. But despite its important subject and impressive access, the surprisingly surface-level film doesn’t have much to say. A dedication to grace pushes out accountability; too little desire to see past the conversion organizations obscures why they’re not going anywhere. Because, obviously, they’re not dying out. Because homophobia still thrives in our world; because conservative institutions profiting off of hate still weaponize religion; because political power still resides in othering. Pray Away offers its thoughts and prayers.
Director: Kristine Stolakis
Release Date: August 3, 2021 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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