If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have assumed it was obvious that a film about gay teen suicide could not also be morally inspiring. Yet this is precisely what Prayers for Bobby achieves. It tells the true story of a religious mother in small town America whose picture perfect life is shattered when she finds out that her teenage son Bobby is gay. Mary, played superbly by Sigourney Weaver, simply cannot accept her son’s sexuality and sets out to cure him of his ‘sickness’. This encompasses prayer groups, hard exercise and psychotherapy as Bobby, desperate to restore his once close relationship with Mary, throws himself into these treatments in a fruitless bid to restore his life to the normality he enjoyed prior to his inadvertent outing. Ultimately though he can’t do this and he finds himself drifting into the small gay world of his home town. This only deepens the divide between himself and Mary before he finally heads out into the local city to live with his sympathetic cousin for a couple of months. This opens up a new life for Bobby and, initially, he finds peace with himself through his first relationship.
As you may have guessed from the opening line of the review though, this peace does not last. Bobby finds himself caught between two worlds; his sexuality renders him a sinner to his conservative mother but his internalised sense of sin prevents him from embracing his sexuality. Ultimately the weight of this ambivalence proves too much to bear and he throws himself off a motorway bridge into the path of an oncoming truck. The rest of the film follows Mary’s struggle to come to terms with her guilt and, although the film up to this point is certainly compelling, it is what follows that makes Prayers for Bobby such an astonishing achievement. Her attempts to make sense of Bobby’s death lead her to question her fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and her submissive relationship to God. She finds a new purpose and meaning to her life as she comes to campaign against the very bigotry which drove such a wedge between herself and her son that he chose to end his life. The film ends with her making an impassioned speech at the seat of local government in favour of gay rights. You can watch it below. The clip may seem a bit cheesy but it really isn’t in the context of the film.
In the events following the film Mary became a highly visible spokeswoman for the Diablo Valley chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. She also appeared frequently on television talk shows and campaigned for public schools to introduce counselling for gay teenagers. While the events of the film are certainly tragic I found this trajectory from intolerance to activism profoundly inspiring. It showcases the ineradicable human capacity for renewal and understanding, as well as the ever present possibility of solidarity in the face of ingrained intolerance. At a time of political and economic uncertainty, while gay rights are under renewed attack, it offers a potent antidote to circumstantial pessimism.
Much of the critical acclaim received by the film seems to have been directed at Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Mary. The stunning quality of her performance can be seen both in the sympathy which she engenders in the audience for the bigoted Mary and the sense of plausibility which she inspires in relation to Mary’s seemingly unlikely transition from bible thumping homophobe to prominent gay rights campaigner. However in many ways I felt she was over shadowed by Ryan Kelley’s earnest performance as Bobby. The simple humanity which he brought to the role stayed with me after the film. He offers a beautiful though tragic portrayal of a young boy trapped within circumstances he did not choose and ultimately unable to negotiate a path beyond them. While these are the two outstanding performance in the film there are any number of touching though low key performances throughout the cast.
Astonishingly Prayers for Bobby was actually produced as a TV movie. Could there be a more powerful retort to those who bemoan the contemporary state of American television? This film is a wonderful achievement, imbued throughout with pathos, which exhibits admirable insight into its topic area (sexuality, bigotry, exclusion) while also reaching beyond it and touching ineffably upon the most profound aspects of the moral experience of being human.