A movie on a great subject can be quite frustrating, because often, the filmmakers either chicken out and make something pat and obvious, or don’t have the skills or money to pull off their ambitions, and so you spend the entire running time praying it will get better. Screenings of movies like Save Me, an attempt to honestly and fairly portray the inner workings of a gay re-orientation commune, make you feel guilty for not enjoying it more. You walk out of the theater gritting your teeth and trying to say something, anything nice, about what you just saw, without trying to sound like you were bored or that it felt like homework. The director might as well have been in attendance, since you were going to tell a bunch of white lies anyway. You might as well have had an eager and needy audience.
Save Me does not get off on the right foot; it immediately establishes that it is going to focus on heavyhanded symbolism and dialogue every step of the way. Our protagonist, Mark, played by producer and former child star Chad Allen, is seen driving recklessly and snorting coke while getting attention from his recent male acquisition. A quickie at a hotel dissolves into emotional heartbreak and medical emergencies. These snippets, accompanied by loud, intense music, are intercut with calming church services, people smiling and singing along with their fellow worshippers. This simplistic morality makes you think that at any moment, Kirk Cameron will show up, and it will finally be revealed that this is a church sponsored TV-movie. The dramatic progression is quite clear; Mark will find salvation and learn his lesson through God, hopefully realizing the err of his ways and that life isn’t about wanton pleasure and degradation.
Will Mark learn to live his life for the love of God and man and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….
For most viewers, impatience will have set in long before Mark’s religiously conservative brother forces him to clean up at an ex-gay camp called Genesis House. That’s a shame, because that’s where we are introduced to Judith Light (another co-producer), playing Gayle, the woman who runs the camp. Her character is headstrong and a passive aggressive bully, who piles on guilt trips when it best suits her cause. And yet, she is not a cartoon, just an emotionally selfish person who takes out her personal pain on others while trying to mold young men into what she always hoped her child could have been. While Gayle’s fascinating conflicts should have been the centerpiece, the movie is bogged down by Mark’s wholly unconvincing conversion from drug whore to a chaste, upstanding citizen (why is there not one scene that shows his progression, especially as someone who was trying to escape?) and his burgeoning romance with another member of Genesis House, Robert Gant, a low-rent Brendan Fraser look-alike.
It is clear that director Robert Cary (along with some of the other influential creative members, such as executive producers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who co-directed The Celluloid Closet) wanted to get into the realities of dealing with gay religious men dealing with self-doubt and this romance was a way to tie up the Man-Man-God love triangle and show the conflicts inherent to happiness and faith, but the simplistic and inert love story takes over, making the ex-gay stuff seem like it was shoehorned in, as opposed to being the entire idea behind the project. The unfortunate part is that if you can get past the character’s constant on-the-nose dialogue, spoken without a hint of irony (“We’re all on the same team, isn’t that why we’re here?”), there’s a rather accurate portrayal of the structure of ex-gay ministries. It isn’t just the various manipulations portrayed, the contrivance of happiness through isolation, a Stockholm Syndrome variation, but how troubled individuals get sucked into this world because of the appearance of human kindness, something that has always been missing in their lives. Some of these characters are so lonely that they even try to find love within their familial condemnation of their lifestyle; they’ve been inundated with emotional hypocrisies from birth. They deal with them by trying to redefine the hatred aimed at them by spinning it in a positive light. Gayle even masters the most devious way that ex-gay organizations keep their members loaded with guilt and fear, by pretending that they can leave at any time, and that they are of their own volition, but employing such strict rules that free will is only an illusion and they can’t help but conform. But most of these ideas, including the scapegoating of homosexuality amidst a sea of other personal problems, are only skimmed over.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie because it isn’t what I wanted it to be. I’m aware that isn’t fair, but if I have to be honest, the film is not particularly well made. Would it have been better had it been either more or less didactic? There’s no right answer, because the ideal movie would have eschewed the romantic angle entirely and given us either a hidden camera documentary, or a seriously detailed and fictional exploration of how someone is taken in and convinced, by perfectly well meaning individuals, that their own identity will lead them straight to hell.