Richard Yeagley’s The Sunday Sessions screens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their ongoing Stranger Than Fiction documentary series. The prevailing sentiment of this month long-series centers on concerns of identity, with the seven films of the series all demonstrating the rather unconventional routes that men, women, and children take in an attempt to achieve some measure of self-actualization. However, it’s Yeagley’s troubling documentary about gay conversion therapy that left me most concerned about the reluctance with which the young and idealistic refuse to learn the ways of the world. For The Sunday Sessions is a film not about achieving self-actualization, but rather denying it, proposing that conventional cultural mores and antiquated modes of spiritual thought inform a tradition of behavior that needs to be actively subscribed to. To do what’s natural is, in effect, unnatural.
Given the recent slew of narrative films about gay conversion therapy, such as Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased and Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Sunday Sessions would seemingly fit within a zeitgeist. And with a Vice President and Republican Party actively endorsing conversion therapy as a viable method of quote unquote rehabilitation, Yeagley’s film is clearly in conversation with a broader cultural discourse. The film opens with a segment from a Dr. Oz broadcast, where Christopher Doyle is being interviewed. The glabrous, instantly suspicious, remix of a human being is a conversion therapist. Admittedly expressing his own homosexual tendencies, Doyle is now actively repressed, as he flaunts the fact that he’s been “hetero” for years, with a wife and children. We later begin to follow Nathan, a young gay man who voluntarily participates in Doyle’s “therapy” sessions (this is a film that, when writing or talking about, can’t help but draw out the persistent though vital use of air quotes ad nauseam). These sessions involving Nathan and Christopher are obscenely exploitative, with Christopher berating Nathan for his perceived masculine deficiencies and pointed remarks that seemingly put the blame on Nathan’s homosexuality on his parents.
Yeagley’s approach, somewhat disarmingly, is nonconfrontational. There’s a sense of trying to understand and even to humanize Christopher Doyle as something close to a spiritual guide. Part of me demands Yeagley to be more critical of his subject, to interject in some of the film’s sequences that teeter toward victimization. Nathan is such a profoundly wounded human being that seeing him oppressively and frequently in close-up makes for a terribly uncomfortable experience. But The Sunday Sessions rarely expounds or plunges deeper beyond its surfaces, with Yeagley constantly probing but never finding any answers or drawing upon anything especially critical. The aforementioned films, Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, at least lobbied for some mode of catharsis that wasn’t as vacuous or simplistic as what we get here; an ending that strains for pathos and revelation, but simply comes across as creepy.