So the conservative Christians have found my blog and they are not happy with my take on their pro-life Super Bowl Ad . . . So what do you think they are going to say about my Ex-Gay Movement Film Review?
Call me passive-aggressive if you like, but it seems like now is the perfect time to review Save Me, you know while they are still around to read it and may be figure some things out.
About 5 or more years ago, I heard Robert Gant talk about making this movie with Chad Allen and I have been waiting for it to come out ever since.
As you can see from the film preview above, Save Me centers around the relationships of young men and their female mentor in an Ex-Gay community in an unnamed areas of NM. Gay men of all ages are sent to the Christian Ex-Gay Ministry primarily by parents and family who think that they can pray away the gay. Once there, they are expected to live austere lives punctuated by group therapy and heterosexual rites of passage (dances, dating, possible heterosexual marriages). Homosocial activity is largely discouraged, despite each resident sharing a room and the optional communal meals. Much of their non-therapeutic time is spent laboring to keep the struggling ministry afloat, including repairing the building, fundraising, or giving speeches at the local church who provides most of the donations. Their families also pay a hefty sum to “cure them” and/ or keep them away, as we find out in one tragic moment in the film.
The ministry is overseen by a troubled woman named Gayle (Judith Light). On the surface, she appears to be a well-adjusted woman of faith whose staunch forward momentum helps propel the residents along with her. Underneath, she is a broken, frigid, and scared woman whose convictions cost the life of her own son. Though she thinks it is a secret, most residents at the ex-gay center know that she projects her son, and all of the guilt she carries, on to them and that those who do not remind her of him, seldom receive the same level of care and attention that she showers on those who do.
The numbing monotony of life in the ex-gay center implodes when drug addled Mark (Chad Allen) is left there by his brother after a drug overdose. Once there, Mark discovers two things: how to love himself and the love of someone else (Robert Gant). The support he receives from Gayle and the other residents helps Mark overcome his drug addiction and let go of the rejection from his own mother and hatred from his brother. It also saves him from a life of multiple suicide attempts and meaningless hookups in a seedy motel he cannot afford. Leaving self-hate behind makes Mark think that he can overcome his same sex desires as though they are part of the same downward spiral as his other addictions and negative behaviors. In essence, he mistakes sobriety and growing clarity for the first steps in a “cure” for same sex desire, and Gayle lets him.
Long time resident Scott (Robert Gant), has already been where Mark is, rejected by family, internalizing homophobia, and desperate to believe that he can change. Scott checked himself into the clinic after his father became ill as a last ditch effort to make his father proud before he died. He tries to mentor Mark, even preventing him from leaving on his first night. And in their mentorship relationship, Scott and Mark begin to unwittingly build the kind of love that they could only find by first healing the wounds inflicted on them by homophobic families. When Scott’s father dies cursing him with Leviticus and telling him with his last breath that he is going to hell, Scott realizes that he can neither change himself nor change people who would hate him. The dual experience of falling in love with Mark and being ultimately rejected, even in his celibate state, by his father, gives Scott the strength to embrace his true identity. In letting go of internalized homophobia, Scott finally reaches for real love but finds himself momentarily spiraling back toward hate when Mark is not ready to do the same.
While on the surface, Save Me appears to refer to being “saved from homosexuality,” the title actually refers to healing from homophobia within both the straight and gay communities. It achieves these dual references by giving us a well rounded portrait of both gay and straight characters who are equally struggling to lay their demons down and dare to live. While Gayle is a broken woman, she is also a passionate and loving one, whose stern kindness and guidance provides the cornerstone upon which many of the residents begin to rebuild their troubled lives. And while the film ultimately rejects her world view, it makes sure to show her not as an evil, hateful woman, but one who needs love and redemption.
The gay characters in this film are initially far less complex. Each one seems to fill a certain stereotype: Mark is the suicidal, drug addled, hustler, Jude is the narcissistic sycophant who tattles on everyone else while harboring his own failings, and Dustin is the good-natured pleaser with the personality of milk toast. And yet, as the movie unfolds each of these characters becomes decidedly more complex. Mark’s bad boy self-destruction slowly evolves into a young man in search of love for himself and from others, who retains a new found serenity and sense of purpose as he finds both. While Jude’s revelations are expected (he’s still gay despite all those dates with his “girlfriend”), Dustin’s are profound. The boy who is practically not there is acting on learned behavior from being literally banished from existance in his natal family by his father. His quiet acquiescence to the life of the ministry masks a soul screaming for love and affirmation. He has never wanted it from the heterosexual world that his early actions seem to imply, but from a gay world in which he is inspired by true, passionate, and life-affirming love witnessed between Scott and Mark. And when he gets that affirmation Jude regains his voice, but not without a tragic incident also caused by Mark’s continued internalized homophobia.
Perhaps what is best about this film is its pacing. It is a slow film that trusts itself to build a story about honesty, brokenness, and love. There are no elaborate sets or cameos from big name actors in costume. Nor surprising endings or heroic ones that wrap everything up in a big fantastic bow. Instead it is a film that moves like time in New Mexico, dusty and slow, with the promise of something spiritually profound in every weather worn shrub.
And though Save Me reaffirms the right to love it has no illusions. The path its characters take are not easy. And at the end of the day, the ex-gay ministry goes on. And even as Gayle asks for redemption from behind a shaky voice and tear stained eyes, she stills thinks that redemption lies in her ministry and not resolution with her dead son.
In short, Save Me is a low budget film, filmed in 18 days on mostly the same small piece of land, with strong performances and solid directing. Its message of love and redemption forgives the wrongs done to us and the wrongs we do to ourselves. Ultimately, it is powerful and life affirming film.
If you have ever had to endure condemnation from the conservative Christian community or rejection from friends and family who think you just need to “try harder,” I strongly recommend you see this film. More than that, I suggest you take those people with you to see it, if you can. Its non-judgmental handling of the issues open the possibility for dialogue and healing between our communities. And if you mentor queer youth still in the process of coming out, Save Me is an ideal film to talk about the mundane homophobia that permeates our society; unlike the sensationalism of zealotry and bashings, the film reminds us it is the mundane that often breaks people who don’t even know they are broken.
As a Catholic who has spent far too much time with conservative Protestants, one of them runs a similar ministry for young adult males while struggling with his own desires, I can tell you personally, that I cannot wait to see Save Me again. And I can only hope that it brings the healing I think is there to the people who need it.
Save Me was released on video Jan 20, 2009 and is available for purchase or rental where available or instant view on Netflix. If you have been a victim of an ex-gay ministry and would like support, check out the list of resources on the Save Me film site: here and if you are looking for a queer friendly church, check there and/or some of the resources on my Bible Lawsuit post: here.