Now Playing! Truth, Faith and Homosexuality Collide in ‘Pray Away’
The most remarkable aspect of Pray Away, Kristine Stolakisâ valuable documentary about reparative or conversion therapyâthe pseudoscientific, anti-gay practice inflicted on more than 700,000 LGBTQ+ Christians in the U.S. by Exodus International and other elements of the religious rightâis the absence of rancor or fury.
Iâve just revealed something about my view of social-issue documentaries as a legacy of â60s activism, and my endorsement of their implicit (and occasionally explicit) tone of righteous, moral indignation. Pray Away, which was completed a year ago and debuted this week on Netflix, reveals a lot about the post-ACT-UP generation of filmmakers, who view the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement less as a finite campaign with victories and setbacks than as a continuum of evolving attitudes.
Evolving attitudes is both the currency and promise of the film, which toggles between the present and the past to recount the journeys of several former star spokespeople of the evangelical gay-to-straight crusade. Most left the so-called movement a good long while ago, so although their struggles are vivid they arenât, by and large, immediate. Plenty of filmmakers finesse and manipulate time for maximum dramatic effect, but to her credit, Stolakis, a graduate of Stanfordâs vaunted MFA documentary program who made several shorts and Pray Away in the Bay Area before relocating to New York during the pandemic, doesnât contrive climaxes and catharses out of years-old life changes.
Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee shows up as a powerful witness, as does baby-faced John Paulk, who was booked so frequently on TV with his ex-lesbian wife that he became (in his words) âthe most famous ex-gay person in the world.â He recounts that âhigh pointâ with a mix of lingering pride and embarrassment that, in one short sentence, suggests the ongoing conversationâor negotiationâbetween identity, faith and sexuality that troubles so many people.
Julie Rodgers (in white, center) in ‘Pray Away,’ 2021. (Netflix)
No doubt some view Bussee and Paulk as perpetrators who did enormous harm to others, rather than as victims. So Stolakis constructs her film around Julie Rodgers, whose just-published memoir Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story recounts her saga of exploitation, self-loathing and self-harm.
Stolakis made another important structural decision, one with important thematic implications. The very first person we meet in Pray Away is Jeffrey McCall, a next-generation, Georgia-based, street- and internet-focused âex-gayâ man picking up where the now-defunct Exodus left off. Stolakis also ends her film with him, pointedly reminding usâwithout mocking or denigrating McCall, a true believerâthat religious intolerance of homosexuality persists.
Pray Away skillfully leaves us with a clear question: Will McCallâs journey mirror Bussee and Paulkâs? The achievement of this film doesnât live in its accumulated anecdotal histories but in its acknowledgement of the LGBTQ people who grapple with sexuality and faith every day.
âPray Awayâ is now streaming on Netflix. Details here.
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