Each year, one of the best things about the Starz Denver Film Festival is the opportunity to hear directly from filmmakers and, sometimes, the subjects of the films themselves. A prime example: The Friday showing of Wish Me Away, a new doc about country singer Chely Wright's decision to come out as a lesbian. The film was interesting, but better yet was Wright's post-screening appearance, which enhanced and amplified its impact.
The offering unspooled at Highlands Church, an appropriate location given the importance of Christianity in Wright's life. Before the lights dimmed, philanthropist Barbara Bridges and speakers from sponsoring organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the One Colorado Education Fund stepped to the podium to talk about the significance of the flick, and of Wright's brave actions. The message was unmistakable: Wish Me Away isn't just a movie, but a work capable of changing, and saving, lives.
That's a heavy burden for any piece to bear, and while Wish Me Away doesn't crumble in the face of such expectations, neither does it wholly live up to them. The directors -- Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, known collectively as the TV Gals -- structure the film as a countdown to Wright's 2010 revelation, which was tied to the release of an autobiography, Like Me, and Lifted Off the Ground, an accompanying album. As such, much of the action (too much, in fact) focuses on shaping the media launch. We see a meeting with Wright's book editor, a coaching session from a PR pro about how to deal with rude questions, and extended sequences drawn from interviews on Oprah and the Today show. There's also a long sit-down with her spiritual adviser -- a format that feels a bit too much like an episode of Dr. Phil.
This material is interesting in its way, but not nearly as emotionally impactful as Wright's own accounts of her experiences and the reasons it took her so long to speak out -- some delivered in the form of personal video diaries that capture her fears and insecurities in vivid, tearful detail.
Likewise, conversations with her relatives -- a sassy sister, an ultimately supportive father and the mother who both empowered and undermined her -- convey the universality of her dilemma even as it underlines the added challenges of sharing her truth in public against the backdrop of a country-music industry whose reputation for political and social conservatism is portrayed as well-founded. An excerpt from an Alabama radio show in which a DJ essentially asks Wright why she couldn't just shut up and keep her sex life to herself is a lot more telling than a hug from Meredith Vieira.
So, too, was Wright's conversation with the Highlands Church audience, in the company of directors Birleffi and Kopf; the chat was facilitated by Variety's Joe Leydon. Wright began by saying, with unfeigned amazement, that the "gayest movie of all time" had just been shown in a church -- a comment that cemented the connection between her and a crowd already rooting for her. That was followed by frank talk about a wide range of topics, from allegations that she told her story because her days as a Nashville hitmaker were behind her, to her disappointment that more scenes showing her commitment to performing for the U.S. military hadn't made the final cut.
And naturally, because of the setting, she found herself discussing her belief in God, and her certainty that He had saved her life during a desperate moment when she'd put a gun in her mouth and was ready to pull the trigger. She told the throng that faith and living as a lesbian were not mutually exclusive -- a statement that only made her seem that much more straight-forward and authentic.
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Oh yeah: She also noted that some people in her inner circle had long suspected that she was gay -- no surprise, since, as she boasted, "I'm a great softball player!"
She's a terrific role model, too -- as well as an in-person example of what's best about the annual Starz Denver Film Festival.
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