Friday, October 24, 2008

"Save Me" is a balanced look at the "ex-gay experience", and more

The new indie feature “Save Me”, from First Run Features, directed by Robert Cary, is surely one of the most levelheaded and probing films to examine pro and “anti-gay” social values objectively, through story and drama rather than a normal intellectual introspection. The story is by Craig Chester and Alan Hines, and the screenplay adaptation is by Robert Desiderio. The film, shot in full 2.35:1 anamorphic, is quite grand and professional in look, using the scenery around Albuquerque NM to give it a big scale look. It calls to mind my own trips to Lama Foundation, north of Santa Fe and Taos back in the 1980s. It even calls to mind my stop in Espanola to get my wheels cleaned after driving back from Lama through mud after mountain rains.

Probably many viewers have heard of the basic logline concept. A young man is sent away to a Christian “ex-gay” camp and falls in love with another man there. That happens, but only as a result of the real healing that goes on in the camp.

The young man, Mark, played by Chad Allen (also a producer of the film), is brought there, without insurances, after he OD’s on drugs after a trick in a roadside motel. The film takes us through his adjustment to the home, run by a loving couple (Ted and Gayle) played by Judith Light and Stephen Lang. He is assigned a roommate, and given some loving discipline, and introduction to a 12 Step program. There is a bit of overkill: Mark has bigtime problems with drugs and alcohol. But not all residents do; some are there for homosexuality, and the point of that may bemuse some viewer.

There is some humor. As Chad is settling in and meeting the other men, Ted admonishes Dustin (David Petruzzi, perhaps the most obviously “best looking” character, who is first introduced in alternating church scenes early in the movie) to uncross his legs. (I heard that one in Army barracks myself.) Yes, they seem to be trying to train the young men into gender conformity. But the couple has lived into its worldview. While the “morality” of all this is usually described in religious terms, it’s clear that the couple looks at the world as an essentially hostile and dangerous place, where families need to be able to count of total biological and psychological loyalty of its members. The young men are made to believe they are privileged to have a loving place to live while they learn to adapt to the “requirements” of functioning and belonging to the world “on the Outside.” (Yes, they have to “change.”) The “Genesis House” (so it is called) can itself become addictive; some men have been there as long as five months.

One of these men is a fortyish Scott (Robert Gant). The core plot of the film concerns the growing friendship of Mark and Scott (who starts out by offering Mark a forbidden cigarette). Being seen has some effect on others, driving some of the plot toward the end. Eventually, one will almost believe they could become a real couple and still remain in this environment. Well, not quite. Their interests become apparent to Gayle at a scheduled "dance" where the boys are supposed to learn the social skills of meeting girls, and whether a couple of the other characters speak of their discomfort with all the social rituals of dealing with the opposite sex, wrapped up in the social conventions and rituals of square dancing. The hidden message: participating in procreation is mandatory.

After my own expulsion from William and Mary for admitting homosexuality in the fall of 1961, I spent six months as a “patient” at National Institutes of Health for the last half of 1962. I remember well the impression that I had to “get better” to be able to go back to a residential campus college (although I did go to George Washington while living at home and then NIH). The film reminds me of the demands of the outside world, at least in the era of my coming of age, that everyone conform to certain requirements of socialization in order to fit in and “deserve” to have a life that others respect and that, in terms of karma, “pays back” what one has already “consumed” (in emotional terms) from one’s own family. The film has a few scenes of the older proprietor couple in bed (within PG territory) and it seems that their marriage gives them the privilege of controlling the lives of others, as if that were a necessary perk for their marriage to exist. An important plot element, however, is that Gayle has lost a gay son herself to suicide eight years before.

I did encounter men affiliated with the group Love in Action in the early 1990s in conjunction with a couple of men I met at work, and (out of curiosity) actually attended a service at the National Presbyterian Center in Washington in March 1990 associated with the group.

It seems a little amazing that the "ex-gay movement" would come up in an era when gay marriage and lifting the military gay ban are mainstream political issues. The characters seem to live in a more isolated world, where it's possible to impose a "collectivized" code of personal morality, a system that only works if everyone can be made to go along.

This film was shown Oct. 24 at 7 PM in the large auditorium of the AFI Silver theater as part of DC's Reel Affirmations film festival. It nearly sold out.

There have been few other films about ex-gay centers. But one was Jeff London’s “And Then Came Summer” (2000) from Wolfe video. The movie has little in common with Brian Dannelly's "Saved!" (2004) with Mandy Moore, Chad Faust ("The 4400") and Macaulay Culkin ("Home Alone"). There is a one-man play by Peterson Toscano, "Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House: How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement" (2000), which I saw in Washington in 2004.

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