Chely Wright is by all accounts and as represented in Wish Me Away a bright, affable, decent, serious, devout woman who did a noble and somewhat courageous thing by coming out as a lesbian after scratching out a promising career in country music.
If you sense a “but” coming, there isn’t one. Not really.
Except, well…it’s getting a bit harder for that to be enough to carry a movie. I think there are one of two ways you can go with a coming out story. It can be a personal profile about the person or it can be a sideways story about the particular context. In many ways, and I say this as someone who has been a Christian for over thirty years now, coming out stories are a lot like personal testimonies. Live long enough, you’ll hear a lot of them, and although you know each one is special and unique to the person giving it, you also know that the few you remember have something distinctive, new, or fresh about them.
The hook here is the country music angle, and that’s a shame, because Chely the person is so much more interesting than the somewhat pedestrian reminder that there are still pockets of the country where it is harder to come out than others. That may be objectively true, I don’t know, but (as the film is fond of framing it) for the kid in Iowa with a gun in his mouth, I don’t think the central take home needs to be, “Hey, at least you don’t live in Nashville.”
It’s also somewhat ironic that the industry is thought of in monolithic terms as against her and yet a significant portion of the film is about the entire support network that is built around her announcement–concurrent with book deal, interview coaching, and appearances on Oprah, Rosie O’Donnell, and morning talk shows. Yes, I know that this is different from the CMA industry, but the point is that while one infrastructure shuts her out, another rallies around and for her. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; it’s just that it is hard to frame that narrative as a single, solitary voice in the wilderness standing up against the world.
The more interesting stuff here is how Wright negotiates coming out with her own religious faith. It is here the film has insight, depth, and nuance, and I found myself wishing it would develop some of these thoughts beyond simply letting us know that religion informs the (sub)cultures that are against her.
At one point Wright says, fascinatingly, that she felt like God was the keeper of her secret, the only one she could actually trust. When thinking about suicide–with a gun in her mouth–she prayed that God would “forgive her” for killing herself. What I found myself most drawn to in Wright, what I wanted to know more about, was how she preserved her notions of a loving God in the face of a church culture that can be every bit as hostile to homosexuality as the country music industry. As her spiritual adviser says, “There’s nobody quite as mean as people being mean for Jesus.”
The religion in a roundabout way also contributes to the introspection that is the fresher part of the film because it gets refracted through something other than gay self-loathing. For example, when Chely discusses dating singer Brad Paisley and then dumping him, she chastises herself for breaking off with him with no explanation: “That’s the worst thing you can do to a person….He was a good person, I was a coward.”
It’s fascinating and refreshing to watch a Christian who thinks that lying or hurting another person (even out of fear) is worse than being gay. What a (not so) radical thought! And, so Chely becomes, in a wonderfully ironic way, a role model for Christians as much as gays, practicing the much neglected call to be truthful and to care as much about the pain she inflicts on others as the pain they inflict on her.