The Sunday Sessions is excruciating. The good kind of excruciating. This fly-on-the-wall documentary from director Richard Yeagley follows Nathan, a committed Christian, as he undergoes “conversion therapy” in an attempt to overcome his homosexuality. [Note to reader: throughout this review I use scare quotes around “therapy” to demonstrate that so-called conversion therapy is a discredited, anti-therapeutic practice rejected by ever major medical organization.]
Yeagley has performed an impressive feat of filmmaking in getting access to private “therapy” sessions, and in general he succeeds in offering the viewer an intensely harrowing inside look at one of the cruelest forms of homophobia, while providing insight into Nathan’s mind.
The Sunday Sessions, by design, has very little editorial voice. It simply observes Nathan in his sessions with “therapist” Chris and charting his “progress” over the course of a year, interspersed with scenes of his family life and his student acting career. Sometimes this was a challenge for your reviewer: at times I wanted a stronger denunciation of the deeply manipulative psychological torture Nathan was undergoing. But for most of the film the footage speaks for itself. Throughout the sessions, Nathan is a man at war with himself, trying to hold on to his Catholic faith while grappling with his sexual attraction to other men.
This tension between sexual and religious identity is at the heart of The Sunday Sessions, and “tense” would be a fair descriptor of the documentary as a whole, as it is filled with contradictions. The “therapy” sessions are couched in the standard therapeutic language of self-acceptance, but teach the exact opposite—the denial of self. Chris cautions Nathan about the dangers of self-deprecating behaviors while teaching him that something fundamental about him is wrong. At one point Chris asks Nathan to identify “some people in your life who punish you for imperfection,” without recognizing that he himself is such a person. Just watching these sessions is to be offered a window into a world where “therapy” becomes torture and words of affirmation are used to buttress oppression.
The Sunday Sessions also effectively conveys the strangeness of “conversion therapy.” Nathan attends a weekend retreat for men struggling with their orientation, and the images are as bizarre as they are painful: gay men of all ages clutching soft toys to their chests, asked to imagine the children they used to be; men playing volleyball together, trying so hard to be stereotypically masculine that it comes across as parodic; men half-naked in a hot tub, enjoying some totally-not-gay social time. It would be funny were it not so cruel.
There are glimmers of happiness. We see Nathan most at ease with himself as he flirts with his close friend Cameron, an out gay man who, heroically, accompanies Nathan to one of his therapy sessions. A scene where Nathan and Cameron sit trading quips in a diner seems more genuinely therapeutic than anything Chris offers: it’s honest, unforced, and filled with real affection. Nathan likes Cameron and enjoys being around him, in stark contrast to the “therapy” sessions with Chris, which he repeatedly criticizes and pushes back on. Predictably, during his “therapy” Nathan is encouraged to isolate Cameron from his life, and tragically he does so.
The glimpse of Nathan’s life in student theatre is also poignant. Like so many gay men struggling with their sexual identity, Nathan seems happiest when putting on a mask of makeup and performing on stage (I can relate). One scene, in which Nathan is being made up before a show as music plays in the background (one of the only points in the documentary when music is used), is a potent metaphor for his inner struggle for authenticity. Images that stress the tension in Nathan’s life abound: there was something absurdly tragic about seeing Nathan posing in a rainbow “Brony” t-shirt while practicing shooting with his father.
I did feel some points of The Sunday Sessions needed a little more focus. “Conversion therapy” is based on the discredited notion that homosexuality is the source of childhood trauma, including either parental abuse or neglect. Repeatedly throughout the sessions Chris attempts to get Nathan to identify moments where his parents failed him, and seems convinced Nathan is harboring a secret about terrible treatment at the hands of his family. Instead of listening to Nathan talk about how he really feels, Chris manipulates the discussion back to his favorite theory, leading to a searing scene in which Nathan’s parents are brought into therapy to apologize for how they have wronged him. These scenes were exceptionally painful for me, because I understand the wrongheaded theories on which “conversion therapy” is based, but the documentary doesn’t provide this information to the viewer. I wonder whether viewers less familiar with the theoretical frameworks of the “therapy” would recognize just how manipulative Chris is being.
Furthermore, I’m not sure Nathan’s own religious justifications for his struggle with his homosexuality receive quite enough attention. Although it’s clear that Nathan’s faith is the main barrier to self-acceptance, it’s only at the very end of The Sunday Sessions that we hear Nathan speak in depth about his own religious views and how they relate to his desire to undergo “therapy.” A little more of his reasoning would, I think, make the specific tension he’s experiencing clearer. Other viewing challenges, such as a rather unsteady camera and some issues with the clarity of the sound in group scenes, do little to detract from the overall power of the film, but were at points distracting.
The final lines of the documentary are chillingly ironic, a fitting summation of the contradictions inherent in the discredited practice of “conversion therapy.” Nathan, with deep intensity, looks directly into the camera for the first time and recites from Fides et Ratio, an encyclical from Pope John Paul II:
“It is essential, therefore, that the values chosen and pursued in one’s life be true, because only true values can lead people to realize themselves fully, allowing them to be true to their nature…This is an essential condition for us to become ourselves and to grow as mature, adult persons.”
The irony is that Nathan, a smart, attractive, self-aware gay man, has been led by his “therapist” to do the opposite. In his attempt to live a heterosexual life, he is denying his own self-realization, following false values to a place where he will never be who he truly is. The tragedy, as this documentary deftly reveals through its smart editing and selection of scenes, is that he knows it. My recommendation: watch The Sunday Sessions with a friend and with some tissues, but definitely watch it.
[Ed. note: The filmmakers are currently negotiating with several video on demand distributors as well as PBS in the hopes of releasing the film on TV and VOD at the end of the year. For the remainder of the summer and during the fall months, The Sunday Sessions will be playing at select film festivals and other screenings (visit www.thesundaysessionsmovie.com for more informations). Those interested in hosting a community screening can contact the director at email@example.com.]