Pray Away is the latest Netflix documentary seemingly doomed to sink into the streamer’s catalogue without ever reaching the surface. To be fair, many of their releases do this, not just documentaries, but for all the work they’ve done pushing a handful of docs into awards contention and public consciousness (they’ve released three of the last four Best Documentary Oscar winners and made headlines for huge sums spent at festivals) they’re just as likely to snatch them up and release them with little promotion or care. Glut, glut is the name of their game, and the influence of that strategy on the documentary landscape is becoming inescapable and sobering.
Not that all of the ramifications are negative. The ability to watch a doc in your own home has almost certainly led more and more people to begin watching them regularly and hence acclimate to their language (at this point this is a strictly anecdotal observation, but NPR didn’t proclaim this a documentary golden age for nothing). Where it becomes sobering is in the kinds of docs that thrive in this environment, with a brand of simplistic, easily digestible style married to a topic with a built-in audience flooding the market. Of course an entirely forgettable political campaign doc featuring AOC (Knock Down the House) got all the money and buzz over a vérité look at four teens in small town Florida (Pahokee) at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. In fact, I was at that festival and spent much of my time focused on documentaries, and the breadth of what thrilled me, choked me up, nearly made me fall asleep, and became inevitable must-watches left me with the mix of optimism and dread many longtime documentary fans feel when surveying the current landscape.
All of this is to say that Pray Away is exactly the kind of documentary you get in this climate, its utterly familiar and workmanlike okayness making its anonymity a foregone conclusion. Yes, its look at the Christian ex-gay movement, predominately of former leaders and participants of conversion therapy, is a topic that will grab many, and the mix of archival footage and talking heads are assembled in a way that horrifies you in exactly the ways you expect, never forcing you to contend with the subject matter in a challenging way.
Most people know by now that these organizations were often run by members of the queer community, a mix of deep-seeded faith, bigoted ministry, and internalized homphobia leading them down a simultaneously understandable and completely quizzical path that left immense scars and many deaths. For these people to sit in front of a camera and own that damage is an immense act of contrition, the palpable inadequacy of it not a reflection of their ease with the task but of the insurmountable impact they must live with.
A truly great doc would step up to meet such a complicated subject, would find ways to make the themes its subjects dare not speak felt nevertheless. Apollo 11, an entirely archival assemblage of the man’s first trip to the moon, captured the soul-stirring hope of human achievement through the rote mechanism of the scientific process. Crip Camp used the history of the disability rights movement to make the horrifying observation that any civil rights movement must first reclaim the humanity denied them. Pray Away, in contrast, sits on its laurels and lets the observations of its articulate and pained subjects go unchallenged and unremarked upon, restricting not only its own scope but the ability of the audience to do the expansion themselves.
The amount of fascinating things sitting on the edge of Pray Away is what makes this a frustrating approach. The intersection of faith and community and the pain of those very important parts of yourself being untenable with your whole is at the core of the situation, yet it receives only a passing examination (watch Disobedience for the full gut punch). A person still in the movement actually agreed to be part of the documentary, yet the tragic, sinister possibilities this presents are hardly utilized. And the very question of forgiveness, a core tenant of the Christian faith these people know so well, is hardly mentioned despite this being an extreme test case.
The latter is the most open to chew on considering director Kristine Stolakis approaches these people with a great amount of empathy, without which they could easily become targets of ridicule and hatred. But this is continuously utilized as protection, almost entirely leaving out the really uncomfortable effect of looking directly at scared, well-meaning people who unleashed a monstrosity. Whether this is a failure of nerve or ambition on Stolakis’ part or whether it’s an acquiescence to the dominance of surface-level documentaries that get passed off as more meaningful than they really are doesn’t really matter. The choices made leave Pray Away as exactly the kind of basic documentary that gets easily sold and just as easily forgotten about, a fate these complicated, brave subjects don’t deserve.
Release: currently available on Netflix
Director: Kristine Stolakis