Facing faith and intolerance

Ryan Kelley and Sigourney Weaver play a gay son and his Christian fundamentalist mother in ''Prayers for Bobby.'' Ryan Kelley and Sigourney Weaver play a gay son and his Christian fundamentalist mother in ''Prayers for Bobby.'' (Ben Mark Holzberg for Lifetime Television)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 24, 2009
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Sometimes, made-for-TV movies go to all the trouble of taking on a hard subject, then face it with eyes averted. But Lifetime's "Prayers for Bobby" takes on Christian fundamentalist intolerance of homosexuality with point-blank directness.

Based on a true story, "Prayers for Bobby" opens with strong hints of a tragedy that will occur mid-movie, but please, stop reading here if you'd rather not know in advance. Bobby Griffith, 20, committed suicide in 1983, after years of conflict with his fundamentalist mother about his sexual orientation.

In the movie, airing tonight at 9, Mary Griffith (Sigourney Weaver) is an unquestioning believer who desperately wants to save her gay son. She fears they will not be together in the afterlife. Weaver's Mary is honest and well-meaning, but she is also a stubborn dogmatist. "I won't have a gay son," she insists, and sends him to a therapist. She posts quotes from the Bible all over the house, in a campaign to convert him.

Against the movie's 1970s backdrop, we see Mary paging through "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)" for information. Alas, that book, so hip at the time, nonetheless described gayness as a curable illness. Mary is steeped in ignorance, to the point of asking her husband, Bob (Henry Czerny), "Do you think Bobby was recruited?" Like the movie "Milk," also set in the 1970s, "Prayers for Bobby" is about days gone by, but it still resonates in the current battles over same-sex marriage.

By the time Bobby is old enough to reject his mother's disapproval, and he moves to Portland, Ore., her disgust has taken up residence in his own mind. He meets a guy, David, but he cringes when David touches him in public. Rejection by the church, and its impact on his family life, have left Bobby with a profound case of self-loathing.

So yes, "Prayers for Bobby" is not a happy movie, as the worst that could happen happens. But the story takes a turn toward the light as Mary spends the second half of the movie on a spiritual journey toward making peace with her loss and her religion. Gradually, she sees a way to reconcile her beliefs with homosexuality, and she becomes an activist working to protect other kids from her son's fate. Weaver manages to make Mary's shift credible, without taking a dive into earnestness and schmaltz.

Wisely, Katie Ford's script, adapted from the book by Leroy Aarons, gives us an hour or so to get to know Bobby. Played affectingly by Ryan Kelley, Bobby is a skinny kid who cares deeply about family. He is refreshingly frank with his siblings, and his parents, too, which gives the Griffith home a nice sense of warm honesty.

That said, the movie has flaws aplenty. It's filled with obvious dichotomies - the open-minded priest and the narrow-minded priest, for instance. And the script is not above tired exchanges such as when Mary asks, "Why do you keep choosing this?" and Bobby answers, "Why would I choose this?" You know, it's a Lifetime movie. Still, there's no denying the story's impact, as it echoes more than 25 years after Bobby's death.

PRAYERS FOR BOBBY Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Henry Czerny, Ryan Kelley, Austin Nichols, Carly Schroeder, Rebecca Louise Miller

On: Lifetime

Time: Tonight, 9-11

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