First Run Features has released a 2018 documentary about a religious Christian man from rural Virginia named Nathan who goes through conversion/reparative therapy for a “condition” he and his therapist refer to as SSA, same sex attraction. Very recently it was made public that the therapist in this film, Chris Doyle, is filing a Federal lawsuit against the Governor of Maryland, looking to overturn the ban on conversion therapy – which sometimes is referred to as identity affirming therapy.
This form of therapy treats homosexuality as a mental illness of sorts, a lifestyle that needs correcting. It is not supported by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association. In fact, some medical professionals consider it to be dangerous.
As the viewer gets to know bits and pieces of Nathan’s life, we find him to be an interesting fellow. He is pleasant and thoughtful, a sometime model and amateur actor. What the viewer mainly gets to know about Nathan is his deep-seeded conflict between creating a lifestyle that the Church would admire and leading the life that comes naturally to him. His faith calls for a life of marriage to a woman and fathering a few children. His natural inclination is to find a gay life partner. Just to make the story more dimensional, documentarian Richard Yeagley also notes that Nathan is interested in modelling, amateur acting, and the Church.
The film meanders. We witness a number of interviews with therapist Doyle, who Nathan has been seeing for more than two years. There is an outstanding sequence with Nathan’s good friend, Cameron, a gay man who clearly would be interested in a relationship with Nathan. When Nathan is with Cameron, he is smiling and somewhat relaxed. With Doyle, Nathan is stiff and in turmoil. He is pensive and troubled. There is no strong arc to the events, which is unsettling to viewers who are tied to more conventional story-telling. I had to keep telling myself, this is what real life is like; this is not a phony documentary constructed with a clear beginning which builds to a climax, simply to please audiences.
The camera comes close to the subjects as they talk and emote. In addition to Nathan, Doyle, and Cameron, we see Nathan’s nuclear family. Most of the time, the close-ups are quite effective in bringing us into Nathan’s inner woprkings, but sometimes they cause a claustrophobic atmosphere.
Yeagley says that “instead of an expose or advocacy-based documentary, I preferred to tackle the story with an observational, fly-on-the-wall approach.” Apparently, there were times when the filmmaker wanted to involve himself in the unfolding episodes. He wanted to advise Nathan to move from his small town to a big city where there are support systems for diverse lifestyles. I can’t help but wonder: If Yeagley actually had interrupted Nathan’s movements and thought processes, how would that have impacted the film? It would have been a very unprofessional move, and it might have destroyed the project; on the other hand, it might have added some exhilaration to this documentary.
Even so, THE SUNDAY SESSIONS is well worth seeing. The most powerful aspect of the film is Nathan himself. He is honest and eloquent in his therapy sessions and in speaking with the important people in his life. THE SUNDAY SESSIONS can be streamed on itunes and Amazon VOD, as well as on DVD.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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