Three cinematic views of the Pray Away the Gay movement

Tuesday night I watched the new Netflix documentary, Pray Away, directed by Kristine Stolakis. It’s a very good film, that won’t be seen by as many who need to see it.

This is the third feature-length film I’ve seen about gay conversion therapy, where Christian fanatics (I assume that in real life there are Jewish and Muslim ones, too) who try to turn LGBTQ people into heterosexuals. All three films had the same message – that this sort of “therapy” is not only futile, but dangerous. And yes, I entirely agree with the filmmakers about the problem.

But the filmmakers had completely different ways to bring the message cinematically. First, came the comedy. That was followed a few years later by a drama. And now we have the documentary. Let’s look at all three, in order of when they were made.

First, the comedy:

C But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

This very broad satire of homophobia and gay conversion therapy has its heart in the right place, but Jamie Babbit’s heavy-handed direction ensures that most jokes miss the funny bone. Even the usually hilarious Cathy Moriarty can seldom provoke laughter. And when the heroine finally gets a chance to save the day with her cheerleading skills, it’s obvious that star Natasha Lyonne didn’t train enough for the part.

Satire can be a powerful cultural weapon. It can turn billionaires and dictators into laughing stocks. Chaplin did it. So did Lubitsch. But not Jamie Babbit. As the saying goes, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Now the drama:

A The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

In the 1990s, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) gets caught having sex with another girl. Her parents send her to an ultra-Christian camp intended to cure teenagers of SSA (Same-Sex Attraction). Initially, she views everyone as her enemy. But slowly, she comes to realize that all the other “patients” are in the same boat. With that, her courage begins to awaken.

The plot is almost identical to Cheerleader, but it’s realistic. And the reality adds power to the story.

And finally, the new documentary.

A- Pray Away (2021)

Documentarian Kristine Stolakis uses new interviews and old footage to show us the history and the disasters caused by Exodus International, the first organization to allegedly “pray away the gay.” Most of the people interviewed here were once major Exodus speakers, trying to go straight and telling others that they have already done so. Now they’re all openly gay. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy. They must carry the burden of knowing that they ruined many people’s lives, telling frightened audiences things that they knew were not true. But the documentary has a happy ending – a lesbian wedding in a church. It’s a subtle reminder that not all Christians are homophobes.

The documentary approach doesn’t get you as close as drama (although sometimes here it seems close), but it can provide a wide canvas. Both Pray Away and Cameron Post show you the problem in very different ways. Too bad that Cheerleader didn’t work as well.