Judge Clark Douglas thinks that what the world needs now is love, sweet love.
She loves everything about her son…except who he is.
Prayers for Bobby is a Lifetime television movie, and it plays like one. It's based on a moving true story, but it hits a lot of familiar beats in a melodramatic fashion. Nonetheless, it's a film that benefits from excellent timing. Though it tells a story that took place in the 1970s and '80s, the alarming string of highly-publicized gay suicides that occurred in 2010 makes this film's rallying cry all the more relevant and moving.
Bobby Griffith (Ryan Kelley, Ben 10: Alien Swarm) is a teenager struggling with his sexual identity. Bobby's mother Mary (Sigourney Weaver, Alien) and father Robert (Henry Czerny, Clear and Present Danger) have always been conservative Christians, and they've made it absolutely clear that they believe homosexuality to be a sin. Bobby has tried to suppress his urges, but his feelings are overwhelming; he can't do anything to curb his attraction to other guys. Finally, Bobby comes out to his older brother Ed (Austin Nichols, The Day After Tomorrow). He pleads with Ed not to say anything, but Ed quickly informs Mary and Robert. Before long, the entire town knows that Bobby is a homosexual.
Alarmed but undeterred by this news, Mary determines to do whatever it takes to "fix" her son. She believes that homosexuality is a choice and that such tendencies can be cured with a lot of hard work (Robert, on the other hand, simply thinks that Bobby, "hasn't met the right pretty girl."). Unfortunately, her efforts only drive Bobby further into depression. Eventually, Bobby moves to Portland, where he attempts to find some measure of peace, self-respect and personal freedom. Sadly, the convictions of his religious upbringing overwhelm him. One night, Bobby jumps off a bridge and is killed by a tractor-trailer.
It's at this point that Prayers for Bobby turns its attention to Mary, and it's at this point that the film begins to transcend its status as a dramatized Public Service Announcement. Up until the time of her son's death, Mary never questioned her religious beliefs. Only when she is confronted with the fact that she believes in a heaven where her dead son is not welcome does she begin to really ponder her own convictions. One of the film's most honest and touching elements is the manner in which it suggests that Mary is unwilling to give up her faith under any circumstances. Rather, she actively explores a more tolerant variation of Christianity which offers a less rigid, literal interpretation of the Bible. She visits the pastor of a church which welcomes gay and lesbian members; desperate to find some loophole her son might have used to get into heaven.
You would think that all of the suicides that have taken place over the years might serve as a wake-up call to the Christian community, but the excuse employed in this film is a familiar one: "He took his life because he was overwhelmed by guilt due to his sinful lifestyle." Yes, many gay teens have taken their life out of a sense of self-loathing—but that doesn't come from God; it comes from judgmental parents and/or peers unwilling to consider the consequences of their firmly-held beliefs. "Love the sinner, not the sin," is a tolerable idea on paper, but that oft-quoted brand of morality rarely translates into the "sinner" feeling loved. It's a phrase that the Griffith family uses on a regular basis, but Bobby never feels any measure of acceptance from his family. They look at him warily, wondering how they can "fix" him.
Prayers for Bobby is a moving (if somewhat simplistic) argument that such mantras simply aren't enough. People of all backgrounds need to be accepted and loved unconditionally for who they are. Anything less than that will likely lead to heartbreak, which is a lesson Mary learns the hard way. She doesn't regard herself as a hateful woman; she certainly isn't the sort of person who would ever consider marching around with the Westboro Baptist Church carrying a homophobic sign. In her own fractured way, she felt that her attempts to alter Bobby's sexuality were loving and good-hearted. She was trying to prevent him from going to hell, after all. Sadly, it's those very efforts that drive Bobby to take his own life.
The film's script may be rather obvious at times, but the sturdy acting helps compensate for that. Ryan Kelley is effectively forlorn in the title role; building a complex and believable character before exiting the film. However, it's Sigourney Weaver's performance that stands out as the film's best element. This film was clearly made for a tiny fraction of Avatar's budget, but it's certainly a better showcase for Weaver's gifts as an actress. She's quietly convincing as both the unintentionally overbearing mother and as the broken woman searching for answers. If you aren't moved some of her big scenes during the film's final act; you're made of stronger stuff than I.
The DVD transfer is solid enough, offering sturdy detail and depth throughout. The film doesn't have much to offer on a visual level, but this disc gets the job done. The audio, on the other hand, is actually rather horrible at times. The majority of the dialogue feels muffled and distant; as if a sub-par recording device were used to capture it. The music sounds rather weak on occasion too, but not as bad as the dialogue. Sound design tends to be murky and indistinct. Sadly, this is one of the weakest audio tracks I've heard for a recently released film featuring recognizable actors. Supplements include interviews with Weaver, the real-life Mary Griffiths, and other cast members, three brief behind-the-scenes featurettes ("Behind the Scenes with the Producers," "Meet the Stars" and "Road to the GLAAD Awards") plus PSAs for The Trevor Project (featuring Daniel Radcliffe) and PFLAG (featuring Weaver).
Prayers for Bobby may not be a very good film, but that doesn't mean it isn't a very affecting one. It's worth a look, though the terrible audio prevents me from recommending a purchase.
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