Netflix documentaries can be hit or miss. For every Icarus or Our Planet there are dozens of tepid and bloated docs that seem to exist simply to take up space in your recommendations queue.
Pray Away is something different. This chronicling of the (obviously debunked) practice of Christian gay conversion therapy paints a devastating portrait of vulnerable young people led astray. And it is a reminder that, despite what is in many ways a shared westernised culture, the gulf between liberal European values and those of the American Bible Belt can be yawning.
This feature-length documentary's director, Kristine Stolakis, maintains a low profile and does not attempt to add narrative urgency to the story. Pray Away is much too upsetting to unfold at a "leisurely" pace. But the stories that Stolakis wants to tell are nonetheless given their own time and space to breathe.
Pray Away opens with a 'former' gay man who has found a new life in religion. 'Drugs, alcohol, homosexuality. I was really deep in sin. I left everything to follow the Lord'
She introduces us to Yvette Cantu, who in the 1990s was hired to "debunk" gayness in her capacity as the public face of the Christian Family Research Council, yet who has now accepted she is bisexual. And we meet John Paulk, who featured on the cover of Time magazine when he claimed to be a gay man who had gone straight and married a "former" lesbian. He is now out again and in a healthy relationship. But he feels guilt at having become the face of conversion therapy.
So does Alan Chambers, a former president of Exodus International, the Christian group that from 1976 pushed the myth of "curing" homosexuality through prayer. (Exodus International voluntarily dissolved in 2013 – but other organisations continue to disseminate its message.)
The most compelling story belongs to Julie Rodgers, raised to believe gay people were the spawn of the Devil. When she came out to her mother at the age of 16, she was encouraged to seek salvation in Jesus. We see her happily engaged to a woman, at peace with her sexuality – and still connected to her faith.
Still, times have not necessarily moved on as much as right-thinking people would like. Pray Away opens with Jeffrey McCall, a “former” gay man who has found a new life in religion. “Drugs, alcohol, homosexuality ... I lived as a woman,” he says. “I was really deep in sin. I left everything to follow the Lord.” Jeffrey claims to be on the path to redemption, but the film invites us to conclude that, in reality, he’s on the road to emotional purgatory.