Directed by Kristine Stolakis, former leaders of the “pray the gay away” movement contend with the aftermath unleashed by their actions, while a survivor seeks healing and acceptance from more than a decade of trauma.
The expectation with this film is very clear, to explore the perspectives of those who had previously encouraged and led the movement of conversion therapy now that they’ve realised its wrong. To traverse the mental and emotional impact of that realisation and their deep regret for the harm they were implicit in causing to many vulnerable people. Disappointingly, that’s not really at all what you get from this story, it spends far too long retelling the tale of their time while involved in the movement and only has precious few of their regret or emotional change. For some of them they barely do so at all, it is clear of course that they do regret their past but it’s not verbalised or dealt with any complexity. It’s a significant let down, the entire tone of the film is different and it’s an element that’s worsened by the choices made by its direction.
Stolakis has the story move in a slow fashion, it’s overly pensive and leans too heavily on its use of archive video. It also makes very little sense that it spends so much time on Jeffrey McCall, who ‘found God’ and left behind his identity of being homosexual and transgender. It’s already clear that the movement has not disappeared, so why labour the point? It again alters the tone of the documentary, it doesn’t feel committed to telling the story of those hurt by it and how important it is that more people involved have their eyes opened to the pain that they’re continuing to cause. It’s baffling that its choices create such a casual atmosphere, it doesn’t manage to capture the depth, sincerity and poignancy of this issue.
The one piece of this puzzle which genuinely works is the story of Julie Rodgers, it moves through her entire journey, exploring her perceptions now as well as during her time in the movement. It’s a moving story of how she was indoctrinated and her self-worth was shattered to the point of self-abuse. She was so easily charmed by these people who pretended as though they wanted to help, and that by joining she would be helping others, she was manipulated into wasting years of her life denying who she was. It’s so lovely to watch her with her wife, to see that though she’ll never be able to rid herself of that experience, it remarkably hasn’t taken away her faith and she’s now using it to help others. These are the moments in the film that are truly memorable, it would have been a completely different film if they’d simply dedicated the whole thing to her story and used the other subjects for context, certainly one that would do more justice to its intentions.
Pray Away is sincerely disappointing and feels as though its initial intentions got lost in unnecessary minutiae and a slow style. There was a much larger opportunity to dive into the ramifications of these former leaders’ actions and how it has impacted them, and what they’ve done to repent for that behaviour but it falls to the wayside. There’s far too much time given to the history of the movement, it’s entirely unnecessary and undermines the tone of the documentary, leaving it feeling very uncommitted to the message of condemning conversion therapy which is ultimately frustrating. It neither dives deeply enough into the emotional consequences or the horrific actions during these experiences to do justice to either.