What I thought might be a documentary companion piece to last year’s thought-provoking Boy Erased, about the abhorrent practice of teen gay conversion therapy, turns out to be a wholly different but not less compelling work about a man in his mid-20s who voluntarily enters a series of monthly therapy sessions in the hopes of searching for the root reasons he has same sex attraction. Here’s one hint: it’s because he likes men.
Director Richard Yeagley’s The Sunday Sessions tracks the two-year-plus process for Nathan, an actor and seemingly well-adjusted devoted Catholic, who meets with therapist Christopher Doyle, a (self-proclaimed) formerly gay man who is now married with five kids and the “straightest” life imaginable. The bulk of the film is prolonged sections of these sessions in which Nathan struggles deeply with his torn feelings, wanting to live the straight Christian life (even though his devoted parents aren’t pressuring him—at least outwardly—to do anything other than be happy) but finding himself drawn to other men, including a hairdresser best friend, who would clearly make the perfect partner.
The most sinister thing about the sessions is that Doyle puts almost no noticeable pressure on Nathan to be straight. He simply demands that he pick a team, which sounds strangely like an open pass to come out loud and proud. But Nathan knows it isn’t that easy, because announcing that he’s embracing being gay means giving up so much that he isn’t willing to release, at least in his mind. The film spends a great deal of time watching Nathan rehearsing for a play in which he plays the villain, and there are points in the film where his emotional openness and constant stream of tears during therapy closely resemble these performances for the ever-present cameras. But there’s no denying that the deep-seated pain is genuine.
The Sunday Sessions also features glimpses of Nathan at conversion camp, which seems part roll-playing exercises, part temptation resistance as they put the all-male campers in a series of highly physical events, as if daring them not to act like straight men the entire time. There are bullying exercises and self-esteem building practices, all of which seem almost laughably pointless and textbook examples of “going through the motions.” Neither the camp nor the therapy sessions feel abusive toward Nathan (he’s much more abusive to himself than anyone else in the movie is), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t being tortured.
Sadly, by the time the film ended, I still wasn’t sure what the future might hold for Nathan. He seems resolute to stay within his faith, but he also seems to reject a great deal of what he’s been taught during the conversion process. The film is meant to be frustrating, because hugs and and good intentions don’t always solve issues like the ones swirling around Nathan’s head. The Sunday Sessions is a gripping, often heartbreaking experience that allows the naked image of the human face to do the bulk of the heavy lifting.
The film is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of its “Stranger Than Fiction: Documentary Premieres” series on Friday, Jan. 11 at 8:15pm, and Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 6pm. Editor/co-producer Allen Irwin is scheduled to appear for audience discussion after the Jan. 11 screening.
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