'Pray Away': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Courtesy of Multitude Films
A sobering account of Christian intervention rooted in toxic homophobia.

Defectors from the religious right's gay "conversion" therapy programs speak out about the damage inflicted on themselves and countless LGBTQ youth in Kristine Stolakis' powerful doc, exec-produced by Jason Blum.

[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select entries that elected to premiere digitally.] 

So-called reparative therapy designed to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, using religious indoctrination and bogus psychology, has been dealt with in both dramatic features (Boy Erased, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and comedies (But I'm a Cheerleader, Saved!). Not to mention a fabulous Will & Grace episode from 2017 called "Grandpa Jack" that featured out queer actors Andrew Rannells and Jane Lynch having a subversive blast playing counselors at "Camp Straighten Arrow." Wherever they fall on the spectrum between serious social realism and cheeky satire, those depictions have shared a wholesale rejection of the barbaric notion of forcing people to live a lie.

It seems unthinkable in the age of marriage equality and wider LGBTQ acceptance that panicked parents are still forcing their queer kids into soul-crushing behavior modification programs that have been denounced as harmful by every major medical and mental health authority.

That heart-wrenching reality makes the story of Julie Rodgers, a millennial conversion therapy survivor who was molded into a teen leader of the "ex-gay" movement, the most emotional thread in Kristine Stolakis' gripping documentary, Pray Away. Rodgers is one of four articulate principal subjects here, all of them prominent defectors from the interdenominational Christian organization Exodus International, which worked for more than three decades to suppress any desire for the quaintly termed "homosexual lifestyle" in its adherents.

Rodgers describes being fed a diet of internalized self-hatred while having her trauma shaped by a manipulative religious leader into a testimony designed to further the community's agenda. The extreme vulnerability of a 16-year-old being led to believe she's a bad kid simply for acknowledging her true nature adds layers of sadness to even the most laughably unsophisticated conversion methods — like forcing girls to quit softball or wear makeup.

Her story is offset by the happiness of preparations for her wedding to another woman. But a moving scene in which her fiancee provides comfort as Julie reads a passage from her book-in-progress about the beginnings of her self-harm rituals shows that the scars remain.

The emotional fallout is slightly less raw for the older defectors, but their regrets over the pain inflicted on them and others are similarly affecting. They include John Paulk, who made the cover of Newsweek with his wife Anne as the world's most famous "ex-gay" couple and the faces of the conversion movement. The former president of the Exodus board now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his male partner; he admits that despite being a true believer, he lied consistently about no longer feeling desire for men — "I had never been honest a day in my life" — and that his years of advocacy for a fraudulent path of change no doubt damaged young queer kids. (Anne Paulk declined to be interviewed.)

A sense of atonement adds weight to the comments of Randy Thomas, the final vp of Exodus, who helped shut it down in 2013; and Yvette Cantu Schneider, who was recruited from Exodus to be the "ex-gay" spokesperson for the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based fundamentalist lobbying group. (She pops up on old Fox News clips billed as "Former Lesbian.")

Both were part of the politicization of the conversion movement in the 2000s, when the George W. Bush government was frantically trying to block the push for marriage equality. Cantu Schneider also was involved in the travesty of California's Prop 8 campaign to invalidate same-sex marriage. Thomas recalls that watching LGBTQ protesters take to the streets to mourn the passing of that since-overruled 2008 ballot proposition hammered home the extent to which he had betrayed his community. For Cantu Schneider, that period brought extreme anxiety and panic attacks later identified as PTSD; she describes it as her body no longer allowing her to keep lying.

The subsequent efforts of Thomas and Cantu Schneider to repair their relationships with the LGBTQ community add to the complexity of their stories, particularly so in moments such as Thomas tearfully acknowledging the blood on his hands. Likewise, the fact that some of the subjects have remained deeply connected to their religious faith — albeit in more progressive churches. It's important to note that at no time does the film mock anyone's religious beliefs, though it unequivocally exposes hypocrisies.

Stolakis and editor Carla Gutierrez (who cut the breakout nonfiction hit RBG and the lovely feature doc Chavela, about the Mexican queer icon) have a wealth of archive material to work with. That includes TV interviews from C-SPAN, 60 Minutes, The Jerry Springer Show and a 2013 episode of OWN's Our America With Lisa Ling, in which the host revisited the reparative therapy controversy for the second time, definitively exposing Exodus for the sham that it was. There's also extensive video dating back as far as the 1970s, shot at the annual Exodus conferences where affiliate churches from all over the world gathered.

Assembled into a cogent narrative graced by an elegant string and piano score, the material is deftly intercut with the illuminating present-day perspectives of the subjects. Those also include Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee, who publicly disavowed the organization's work and stated that he had never seen evidence of a single gay person becoming heterosexual through conversion programs. The compassionate insight into people's lives spent carrying shame and humiliation, hurting themselves and others, is powerful stuff.

The film is measured yet forceful, never strident in making its point. It exposes the bitter truth about a morally and psychologically unsound practice — birthed out of a time when being gay was "a crime, a sin and a sickness" to use Bussee's words — that now appears to be making a quiet resurgence in our supposedly more evolved age. Stolakis stays away from speculation over support in the current Republican administration for conversion therapy, choosing instead to maintain a personal focus on individuals who have lived through the experience.

Postscript details convey the astonishing fact that approximately 700,000 people have gone through some form of reparative therapy in the U.S. alone, and that LGBTQ youth exposed to such programs are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide.

Given that stark reality, it's to Stolakis' credit that she remains nonjudgmental in her presentation of the film's chief representative for the other side: Jeffrey McCall, a self-described "formerly transgender" person who founded the faith-based grass-roots organization Freedom March, devoted to spreading the word that prayer can deliver people from the "bondage" of their LGBTQ lives. However, while the filmmaker declines to challenge McCall on his views, the unsettling tight shot of his smiling face on which she chooses to close Pray Away speaks volumes.

Production companies: Multitude Films, in association with Blumhouse, Lamplighter Films, Naked Edge Films, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Perspective Fund, Secret Sauce Media
Director: Kristine Stolakis
Producers: Jessica Devaney, Anya Rous, Kristine Stolakis
Executive producers: Jason Blum, Jeremy Gold, Marci Wiseman, Mary Lisio, Amanda Spain, Daniel Chalfen, Jim Butterworth, Katy Drake Bettner, Johnny Symons, Julie Parker Benello, Patty Quillin, Nion McEvoy, Leslie Berriman
Director of photography: Melissa Langer
Editor: Carla Gutierrez
Music: Laura Karpman, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Cinetic Media

101 minutes