Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased was my favorite film of 2018. It’s portrait of a young, gay man voluntarily undergoing sexual reassignment “counseling” was equal parts horrifying, heart-breaking, and challenging. But if the film had an Achilles heel, it may well have been the fact that being based on Garrard Conley’s memoir caused to film’s narrative to have the sort of retrospective hindsight that rather consistently substituted indignation for complexity or ambiguity.
That’s the principle reason why I found Richard Yeagley’s The Sunday Sessions complementary rather than redundant. In the Director’s Statement accompanying the press kit, Yeagley stated: “Instead of an exposé or advocacy-based documentary, I preferred to tackle the story with an observational, fly-on-the-wall approach.” Yeagley bends over backward to stress that this doesn’t mean that he and the film aren’t squarely against conversion therapy. He states that biting his tongue was
If he had done so, The Sunday Sessions would have been a very different movie, one that didn’t offer Phillips the space in therapy to express anger at the fact that he was being rejected by those who casually and cruelly dismissed him because of his religious beliefs in much the same way they accused Christians of dismissing gay people. As far back as I can remember — or at least as far back as my 2014 review of God’s Not Dead — I’ve been rolling my eyes at American Christianity’s persecution complex. But I’ll now own the fact that the most counter-cultural thing in this portrait of a conflicted gay man is his insistence that his religious identity is not some choice that can be jettisoned to make his life healthier and happier in the eyes of those who fundamentally agree with some of its assumptions.
The documentary also contrasts sharply with Boy Erased in the way it presents those doing the therapy. Chris Doyle may well be held in contempt by the film for persisting in a practice that is not endorsed by any credible psychiatric association and is now banned in Maryland but is consistently shown, unlike the counselors in Boy Erased, telling Phillips that he is in charge of his own therapy. If Doyle is wrong, either about his own sexual preference conversion or about what is best for Phillips, he appears to be sincerely wrong.
That sincerity creates a fascinating subtext in The Sunday Sessions, one in which the documentary appears to conflate not intervening with being neutral. Towards the end of the documentary, Phillips shares an answer to prayer that he believes he received by means of a spiritually intense experience while taking the Eucharist. Ironically, while both his therapist and the film seem to be agreed that his Christian identity and his gay identity are not compatible (just disagreed about which he should give up), Phillips bravely persists at trying to reconcile the two. Does that make him foolish or brave?