Jason Tseng

Reflections on "Prayers for Bobby"

Filed By Jason Tseng | January 26, 2009 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: coming out of the closet, lifetime, prayers for bobby, sigourney weaver

I had heard a lot about the buzz surrounding Lifetime's newest Made-for-TV-movie, Prayers for Bobby. Gay son kills himself which leads heartbroken mother to open her horizons and become an activist for the queer community. It seems like a story we've all heard before, and given Lifetime's pension for sappy, over-sentimental fare, I wasn't too keen on watching it. Another movie about the tragic death of gay person to "educate" the masses and tickle our tear glands? I've frankly become a bit fatigued by the media's seeming delight in producing films that kill us in pursuit of their own education.

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However, what nudged me over the edge was the promise of much beloved, Sigourney Weaver cast as Mary Griffith. While cautiously optimistic about the film, I sat down with my DVR and got to see what all the hullabaloo was about.

Now, I'm not sure how others reacted to this film... but it really struck a chord with me. Based on a true story, the film opens in 1979 to the happy Griffith home: Husband Robert (Czerny) Wife Mary (Weaver), and children Ed (Nichols), Bobby (Kelley), Joy (Schroeder) and Nancy (Eagen). The gay cat comes out of the bag surprisingly early, when Bobby ponders suicide by aspirin. His older (and hunky) brother Ed discovers Bobby laying on his bed with a bottle of pills a little too conspicuously scattered on the floor of their shared room. Thus launches the very religious Griffiths campaign to cure Bobby of his illness.
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Long story short, none of Mary's efforts see much fruit. And it becomes obvious that while Bobby's family is very loving, love is not nearly enough to repair the rift between Bobby and the rest of the Griffiths. Feeling alienated by his increasingly prison-like existence under his parents' roof, Bobby finds salvation in his fabulous, free love, and supportive cousin, Jeannette. Convincing him to spend some time away from his family, Jeannette hosts Bobby for a two month visit to her hometown, Portland. Here, Bobby meets Jeannette's friend David (played by the very handsome Scott Bailey) whom he shares a quick and passionate romance.

Bobby returns home to his family, only to announce that he intends to move to Portland and proclaim his newfound romance with David. In a particularly painful scene, Mary rejects her son sending Bobby away in tears, reeling from the rejection.

All seems to go well, until Bobby becomes distraught at a seemingly unfaithful boyfriend and the lack of his familial support system, kills himself by leaping from a highway overpass, into oncoming traffic. The suicide scene was more than a little uncomfortable to watch, especially knowing that these events indeed took place, along with the noticeable Christian symbolism with Bobby's Christ-like pose as he falls to his death.

praye3298.jpgBobby's death feels sudden and early in the film, but so was his life. The rest of the film documents the grief of the Griffith family, each grieving in a different way. Ed, Bobby's older brother becomes violent when he hears the news and in the months to come, while his younger sister Joy seems to close in on herself. Mary takes Bobby's death the worst, almost obsessively searching for answers that will secure Bobby's place in the afterlife. Questioning her faith, she finds herself seeking answers from a minister of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church. From there, Mary finds her activist feet and begins her long crusade to end the suffering of queer youth at the hands of their parents and churches.

While the actual writing of the film could have easily been preachy and overbearing, the skillful performances by the actors, especially Weaver and Kelley give the ring of truth to the dialogue. The only performance I found a bit lacking was Scott Bailey's well intentioned but clunky portrayal as Bobby's boyfriend David. I felt that Bailey and Kelley didn't have a promising chemistry on screen, which made me question later scenes between grieving boyfriend and mother.

Not enough can be said about what Sigourney Weaver brings to the table. In a lesser actor, recitations of scripture and evangelical talking points would have come off as stiff and unrealistic, but as I watched, I believed in Mary's conviction to her faith. I'm crossing my fingers that she'll get an Emmy nod out of this.

Now I know that I'm a bit of a sentimental schmuck. I cry at Hallmark commercials for crying out loud. But I was surprised with how teary I was through the film. Part of it was clearly reliving my own painful journey out of a deeply evangelical Christian closet, and contemplating the darkest moments in my own childhood where I perhaps pondered suicide, or at least the prospect of never being born. I saw so much of my own story and my own family in the Griffiths that I couldn't help but be moved. The film isn't perfect, especially not the strange loose-strings-tied post-mortus semi-hallucinogenic reunion between mother and son/innocent bystanding look-alike. But all in all, well done Lifetime!

In case you missed it this weekend, you can catch it once more on Lifetime, Tuesday Jan. 27th, 9pm EST.


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Anthony in Nashville | January 26, 2009 3:40 PM

In many ways, this was a stereotypical Lifetime movie (sappy and corny) but I will confess to almost crying at the end, which shocked the hell out of me.

Weaver did a good job, I was surprised that her characters was the most homophobic. In my experience it's usually the men with the bigger issues.

A good movie for the Sunday church set, probably not so much for people who are out.

I got a little teared up at this despite my best efforts. To paraphrase Noel Coward, "the writing was not very good, the direction was not very good, the sets and costumes were not very good, but the leading lady was very, very good". This would have been awful without Weaver. Her testimony to the city council at the end is quite moving, and I couldn't get but get caught up in her grief which felt authentic.

I was reminded of Mary Lou Wallner in "For the Bible Tells Me So" since the parallels are so strong, and I was in tears by the end of that film.

An appearance from Dan Butler as the MCC pastor was also welcome.

What we noticed most of all was how awful the costumes and sets were. This thing was supposed to have happened around 1980. The furniture and costumes looked like someone tossed some leftovers from Crate and Barrel in with the Brady's next-door neighbor's estate sale.

Despite all of this, I think that the audience for this -- middle America moms -- will get it. I think Weaver lends this some credibility, and the fact that this aired on Lifetime is not insignificant.

As I reread my comments, they may sound harsher than I intended. I suspect for us gay folks this story is so familiar (suicide sounded like a reasonable option to me at one point when I was 17 at least in part because I was gay and hated it) that anything other than a spot-on telling just makes me want to bang my head against a wall.

But the telling was somewhat authentic and compassionate, and that's no small thing.

I really wanted to like this even though it pretty much sounded like typical Lifetime tear-jerking fare, and I sincerely hope that somewhere some parent will have been moved to be accepting of their glbt child because of this movie. But, jeez, the writing was awful. Nothing about it was convincing. Beyond the writing, my biggest complaints with the story are these:

I'm sooo tired of movies where the gay character has to die. Yes, I know this was based on a true story and the real kid did commit suicide, but re-telling his story feeds into the notion that being gay is worse than death.

Second, honestly, I have a problem with making a hero out of the mother. It's nice that she saw the error of her ways and went on to try to prevent other mothers from doing what she did, but I still don't think that makes up for what she did to her own son. Sorry to be so cold.

I have a problem with making a hero out of the mother. It's nice that she saw the error of her ways and went on to try to prevent other mothers from doing what she did, but I still don't think that makes up for what she did to her own son.

It's Lifetime, they have to hit their demographic too.

Great review! I do want to see this movie eventually.

Steve Ralls Steve Ralls | January 27, 2009 9:29 AM

An interesting note about Scott Bailey's character and the script:

At a PFLAG event in D.C. this past weekend, Scott noted that even his girlfriend (like many others) was upset at the scene where he is seemingly unfaithful to Bobby.

The scene, of Scott's character, David, happily exiting a gay bar with another man, seems to have been widely misinterpreted.

Rather than being about Bailey's wandering eye, it was scripted to be a scene of contrast . . . of Bobby comparing, in his mind, the condemnation from his mother and the life he believes he will never have (as a happy, openly gay man out on the town.)

The film was edited in an unconventional way by Lifetime, apparently, and the true intent of the scene was lost . . . but it was never meant to portray Bailey as being unfaithful to Bobby. Instead, it was meant to be a glimpse into the life that Bobby yearned for, but felt he could not have.

My husband wished to watch it. I didn't want to because I lived through watching two boyfriends with mothers like Bobby kill themselves...but I did. There was a lot of Anger at Bobby for me, probably because how Angry I was at my exes. As a kid that was raised by folks that dragged me to whatever the predominant Christian church there was where we were Stationed, I learned early that there were too many "One, True and Onlies". I never bought the "One Way" crap that they did and Hated them leaving me Grieving becasue they didn't have the Backbone to tell their folks to F off....

Ervin Gainer | January 27, 2009 1:02 PM

I thought the movie was good. I recommend!! There are many Bobbys out there, who went through the same process he did. I even thought about suicide at one point of my life, but I am glad I'm alive. I'm proud of being a gay male. I have a wonderful partner as well. I do believe there is a God and I know he put me on this earth for a reason. Maybe to help my conservative, Baptist family understand that Gay people exist and that God loves GLBT people as much as God loves my family. GLBT people are just people like everyone else.

Although all I tried to watch the movie on 3 different occassions I never was able to see the whole thing.

The parts I saw seemed to fit everything I heard Mary Griffith say on different occassions at PFLAG meeting.

I agree that when I first heard her I thought it was wonderful for her to be speaking to and for us but I also had to think of the cost it took to get her from being a religious fanatic to to the woman who could tell the story of her conversion from fanatacism and memorialize her son.

Darlene Bogle | January 28, 2009 12:23 PM

I live in the Bay Area and was aware of this event when it happened. I watched the movie and like many was in tears. Mary Lou Walner is a personal friend, and I thought of her and her tragedy with her daughter. My brain could have just stopped with those thoughts, but rather than just feel bad for all the men and women who were represented by Bobby...I added some thoughts as to Why the family responded to Him in that way! They wrongly assume their gay children are flawed.
They try to change what cannot be changed! Good point, that Love is not enough. We don't need tolorence, we need acceptance. There are gay christians everywhere and it is because we are who God made us to be! I'm proud of the lifetime presentation, and also more challenged than ever to continue my activism on behalf of educating the church at large, that it's GLBT children are gifted; accepted and loved by God. We are His workmanship...and we are not flawed or broken, or shameful!

My wife and I watched this movie last night. Sigourney Weaver was wonderful, I thought. The rest of the cast was adequate. The suicide scene was more than uncomfortable for me too, bringing up as it did, memories of my suicidal depressions.

That brings up a point though. In this movie, as in "For The Bible Tells Me So," trans people were invisible even though we get the same kind of religious prejudice and condemnation that GLB people get, perhaps even more so. I realize the story is about the gay son of an overly religious mother yet I can't but think that they could have even momentarily pointed out somewhere how trans people are victimized by the same kind of thinking that contributed so heavily to Booby's death.