Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lifetime's "Prayers for Bobby": a straightforward telling of a tragedy


Well, I got to see the second showing of “Prayers for Bobby” (directed by Russell Mulcahy, based on the nonfiction book by Leroy Aarons) on Lifetime tonight (as a “Red Carpet Premier”), just after the careless power company took an outage in fair weather with no problems – just cutting corners and not keeping up “infrastructure.”

The film has gotten a lot of pre-press because Sigourney Weaver (Ripley in the “Alien” movies, and Paulina Escobar in “Death and the Maiden”) plays the religious mom Mary Griffith. Ryan Kelley, whom imdb bills as a “straight actor playing a gay role” (Okay, so way Sean Penn recently) is very appealing as Bobby Griffith. Probably most viewers watch the movie already knowing that it is the “true story” about a mother having to come to terms with the loss of her gay son and the need to face her own religious intolerance.

The script really hits the absolute reliance on religious ideas very hard, with plenty of Leviticus. She does say a lot of prayers and expects Bobby to do likewise. Mary Griffith keeps saying “we’re your family, we can get through this,” and that’s a good clue. There has been a lot of time. It starts when he pushes away a girl and then admits his dreams to his brother, who "tells". Before, he was the perfect son, who knew could tell his mother how the glass of milk in Hitchcock's "Suspicion" gets illuminated.

There’s also the walk in the woods, when Dad (Henyr Czerny) says that Bobby has to get “practical” with what he wants to do with his life, when Bobby says he wants to be a writer. It's sort of like it's time to become a "man" and give up "childish things." (But Bobby doesn’t want to go to college – a contradiction. Remember, basketball player Lucas Scott becomes a famous (and movie-made) novelist in “One Tree Hill”.)

Pretty soon Bobby confronts his mother and “tells.” He says “it’s not the Bible, it’s you.” There is dichotomy of “what I am” and “what you’ve become.” Mom says “I won’t have a gay son” and Bobby says “then don’t have a son.”

Bobby seems to be breaking away, but her words haunt him. He stands on an expressway overpass in a scene reminiscent of L.I.E.

One of the issues, I think, is the “existential” meaning that the traditional straight world gives to a male “gay values.” Let’s say, Bobby has his own world of feeling that will control his impact on his world. But he does not want to feel the same emotions that others feel (or exercise personal power options) and may need to count on him for. “No man is an island,” but sometimes a lot of us want to be – to not only live but control our own destiny. Instead, Bobby feels cornered; the world will not let him experience the world the way he wants to, so Bobby feels he is of no use to the world as it demands him to act or feel, because of the world’s (or “family’s”) “needs.” The world simply demands that he compete on its terms, not on his. It all sounds so collectivist and so right-wing at the same time.

It becomes agonizing. She dreams that Bobby is alive. We often dream about regaining what we have lost. She reads his handwritten diary (it’s not an online blog on Myspace, which would have been more interesting). His written journal forces her to understand who he really was, and the total disconnect in their communication because of her casting everything into religious terms. She realizes a contradiction in her own religious convictions. “Bobby sinned, but he was pure of heart.” She is almost drawn back into the world of the Puritans, as we study their writings in high school English, chasing down every single Biblical clobber passage – to find the end of the road in her own previous thinking. “The Bible was written by mortal men, and it reflects the societies in which they lived.” She says she has never questioned the Bible because she never had any reason to, until now. Now, she has to recognize the contradictions inherent in “inerrancy.”

Eventually she connects up with PFLAG. But then she has to deal with the truth. God did not heal Bobby because there was nothing to heal. Now he is gone. Although a pastor comforts her, the moment is brutal. Gradually, she comes out of her grief and becomes active for gay equality. The last scene shows her at a Pride parade.

Although the story is supposed to take place in the LA suburbs (starting in 1979), the film appears to have been shot in Canada, as many Lifetime films are. Lifetime is the only distributor listed (Daniel Sladek is the production company). The style of the film is more like that of an instructive teleplay, and tends to be a bit didactic (as are many Lifetime films). It seems a little forced and didactic to have made for a convincing theatrical film (compare to “Save Me”, which is much more subtle, or even “Latter Days”, or, of course “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk”).

The movie says that Mary Griffith testified before Congress in 1995. Maybe she will help again now, in Congress again, to overcome “don’t ask don’t tell”.

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