2020 Tribeca Film Festival: Two years ago, a pair of movies came out that took on the horrid practice of conversion therapy. Both “Boy Erased” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” took narrative and heavily dramatic looks at how the devoutly religious can damage their children. Back in 1999, “But I’m a Cheerleader” took a somewhat more comedic look at that practice. Now, the documentary “Pray Away” goes the non-fiction route. In the process, the film manages to hammer home far deeper emotions than any of the above titles could hope for.
“Pray Away” details how a level of toxic homophobia and overall fear of those who are different can have searing consequences. In some ways, this is a horror movie, and not just because Blumhouse is a production company on it, complete with Jason Blum on hand as an Executive Producer. The horrific nature of what individuals sent to these supposed therapy programs would be right at home in genre fare. The smiles and colloquial nature mask something deeply disturbed. When hatred runs rampant, no matter in what manner, everyone loses. For the subjects in this doc, however, the losses are potentially everlasting.
The documentary looks at the “pray away the gay” movement, centered mainly on those who have, for one reason or another, defected from the cause and seen the light. Specifically, they’re all “graduates” and now defectors from Exodus International. One of the major subjects is Julie Rogers, who was an impressionable teen indoctrinated in reparative therapy when her family suspected she was a lesbian. Full immersion in the program moved her up in the ranks, eventually becoming a leader. For many of the subjects here, they saw belief in the program rewarded with jobs promoting conversion therapy to others, using a mix of religious dogma, propaganda, and pseudo science to mask the emptiness at the core of this system.
As the movement grows in membership and stature, cracks begin to form, especially once the biggest organization begins to take an interest in political power. For example, John Paulk goes from a prime Exodus representative, touting his marriage to his wife as proof of being cured, to being outed at a gay bar one night. As one domino falls, another follows. Soon, members are leaving, questioning the damage that they’ve had done to them, as well as the damage they’re doing to others.
Deep human emotion is a constant throughout this movie. For 100 minutes, you immediately are invested in all of these stories. The former members of Exodus display complicated emotions about their time in the therapy. Some display more outward scars than others, but all have been profoundly moved by their journey. The simple yet engrossing nature of the documentary allows us to easily join them on the journey.
Director Kristine Stolakis doesn’t pull any punches, but this is never exploitative, either. More than anything else, it’s sobering to see how Christianity is willing to demonize so many, all in the name of love and a supreme being. Stolakis uses the testimony of survivors to demonstrate the damage that conversion therapy can do, resulting in something impossible not to be moved by.
“Pray Away” may well break your heart. At the very least, it should enrage you. Conversion therapy is a cancer, not just to followers of Christianity, but of course to those caught up in its web. This is a heavy documentary, but it’s essential viewing. Brace yourself for some tough emotions, but keep in mind that, for those who come out on the other end intact, there’s a deep sense of relief. The film itself displays the same, which is one of the main reasons why it’s among the best things that Tribeca 2020 has to offer.