“Pray Away,” a new documentary about the “ex-gay movement,” is exactly as miserable as you’d expect — not only because it’s depressing, but because it can’t tap into how bleak its material is.
Helmed by director Kristine Stolakis, the film is largely observational and rarely critical, regurgitating everything we’ve already known. Without much interest in the going-ons of the period that gave rise to conversion therapy, it’s an unbounded work.
The film’s subjects are former conversion therapy leaders who describe in rote patterns the shame they felt once they realized the damage their “advocacy” inflicted. We come to understand their perspective early on in the documentary, which then spins itself in circles. It spends the rest of its runtime gazing through old news interviews, with leaders of the old guard — many affiliated with Exodus International — narrating their experiences.
Shoddy interviewing keeps the subjects’ traumas out of reach. What do they think about? Does anything keep them up at night? Those questions go unanswered, but worse is that “Pray Away” is a documentary of a moment that has little connection to the moment itself. If another documentary interviewed a group of conversion therapy survivors in the year 3000, the product would be essentially the same: “Pray Away” doesn’t engage with the unique cultural circumstances of the late 20th century that led to so many people being victimized by conversion therapy.
Though the interviewing is subpar, the stories the interviewees tell are nonetheless moving. One of the survivors, Julie Rodgers, reads from her own book about the personal trauma of conversion therapy, describing self-inflicting burns on her shoulder with cigarettes and quarters. Now engaged, Julie’s fiance rubs her shoulder, where the scars remain under Julie’s shirt, and her engagement ring sparkles. Near the end, as Julie and her partner approach the altar, the camera briefly focuses on the same scars, left exposed by Julie’s wedding dress.
Compared with what the other subjects share, you get the feeling that we’ve learned so much from Julie because she’s open and ready to share that part of her life. Some of the other subjects aren’t so ready, and Stolakis respects that. The cost, of course, is a somewhat wandering documentary. Even in Julie’s case, it takes some imagination to put the pieces together.
There are a few seconds where the camera lingers on the draft of her book. Part of the page is out of focus, but what is legible hints at the role her parents played. Yet, their specific story is not told — the deepest “Pray Away” dives into the parents of conversion therapy victims is a summary of the talking points that Christian lobbyists created to scare family-oriented parents (the slippery slope argument was a big one).
Some might say that the parents don’t matter, that “Pray Away” is exclusively focused on the survivors and leaders of the movement, parents be damned. But “Pray Away” is meant to focus on the cycle and system that enabled conversion therapy across the country. It’s tied to the understanding, and the parents’ misunderstanding, of what it means to be queer. Neither parent nor a solid grasp of queer identity makes an appearance.
As “Pray Away” rounds the corner into the final stretch, it introduces the conversion therapy groups that have filled the vacuum left by Exodus (which made its exodus from the world in 2013), such as the Restored Hope Network. Anne Paulk, the very same “ex-gay” who John Paulk, one of the film’s subjects, married and later split from, heads the group — mamma mia, here we go again. The film’s point is that the wheel just won’t stop turning, but “Pray Away” never gives the wheel a full turn.