That is the bare-bones media-soundbite synopsis for the recently released film, Save Me, which premiered at several select theatres in New York City and Los Angeles and will be making the LGBT Film Festival tour this fall. At first, I thought this was going to be just another "gay movie" with the prerequisite soft-core porn "love scene," the melodramatic over-written monologues, the cheap cinematography, and the beautiful yet poorly trained actors that we have all come to expect from your run-of-the-mill gay film. I was expecting something on par with the slightly entertaining but vastly over-praised film Latter Days, which in hindsight can only be referred as a guilty pleasure.
However, Save Me broke through my cynical expectations of the gay film genre with outstanding performances by Chad Allen (Dr. Quinn: Medecine Woman, Donald Stratchey series), Robert Gant (Queer as Folk), and lastly but far from least, Judith Light (Who's the Boss, Ugly Betty).
The film begins with a slightly heavy-handed cinematographic metaphor- cutting between the erotic sex romp of young, gay, coke-snorting Mark (Chad Allen) with an unnamed boy toy, and a congregation clad in their Sunday best, singing hymns in a church. It is slowly revealed that several of the members of the congregation belong to an Ex-gay ministry called "Genesis House", run by the compassionate but resolved Gayle (Judith Light) and her husband Ted (Stephen Lang). Mark overdoses in his hotel room and wakens in a hospital bed with his brother at his side.
Put under his brother's care, Mark is sent to Genesis House for some much needed reform from his "homosexual lifestyle." He instantly catches the attention and the heartstrings of Gayle, whom is reminded of her own gay son she lost to an overdose. Initially resistant to the occupants of Genesis House, Mark eventually finds solace and a sense of brotherhood with the other men in the ministry. Long story short, Mark finds a new direction of reform in his life and abandons many of his old habits of drinking, drugs, and yes... even homosexuality. But his budding friendship with Scott (Robert Gant), which is initially seen as an important step toward building a non-sexual healthy relationship with other men, becomes something more than either intended.
Save Me's mostly linear plot is punctuated by small vignettes of therapy sessions with several of the members of Genesis House. I found these divertisement some of the most poignant parts of the film. They offer short but insightful windows into each of the characters' narratives and personalities.
The fact that many supporting characters were similarly exposed through this cinematographic technique gives Genesis House a depth and dimensionality which defies the stereotypical ex-gay portrayal that has dominated the majority of our gay film repertoire. In fact, it is this less judgmental and open-minded handling of this ex-gay ministry I find most compelling in this film, more than the love story between Mark and Scott, or Gayle's maternal crisis with Mark. This was one of the first films from the gay film camp, which is quick to condemn these programs as hate-filled brainwashers and emotional and phsyical abusers of sexually confused teens, that I have seen featuring ex-gay ministries that treated Christians like human beings; as opposed to the self-righteous sycophantic hypocritical religious zealots which dominates portrayals of Christians in gay media.
The pacing of the film is slow, but deliberate. The film allows us to take a journey as opposed to follow a plot. Even if I may disagree politically or religiously with Gayle or any of her teachings, we are shown a portrait of a compassionate and conflicted Christian woman. While her zealous enthusiasm caused by the loss of her gay son to an overdose is a bit reductive, Judith Light's performance adds much needed weight and depth to the character. It is refreshing to see Light in such a role that demands more versatility. I am unfamiliar with much of her past work, chiefly knowing her as Claire Meade on Ugly Betty (which while a thoroughly enjoyable show, is a bit flat where character development is concerned). Light pulls out all the stops and really steals the show.
Which brings us to our two leading men, Mark and Scott, played by Chad Allen and Robert Gant respectively. I was initially reserved when I heard about the two men chosen to play these characters. While both are fixtures of sorts in gay popular culture (Chad Allen being one of the more successful gay actors out and achieving prominence from his time on Dr. Quinn, and Robert Gant gaining reputation in the now iconic US version of Queer as Folk), neither have a particularly strong reputation for great acting. I was happily surprised to see Allen and Gant pulling out fairly strong performances in their respective roles. And kudos to director Robert Cary for not falling into the trap well known in gay cinema to needlessly sexualize characters, despite Allen and Gant both sporting very fit bods.
All in all, I thought Save Me was a refreshing addition to the gay cinema canon as one of the few films that can be extracted from it's niche genre of "gay movie" and be taken seriously in the wider film dialogue. Allen, Gant, and Light all pull out very fulfilling performances backdropped by beautiful cinematographic work (someone give their director of photography a oscar). The film had some problems, admittedly... what film doesn't? But I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'd encourage anyone near an upcoming screening to check it out.