At its simplest, Chely Wright: Wish Me Away has the same problem as a number of break-out contemporary country albums: The polish and clearly studio-determined insistence on personal empowerment ultimately neuter the pain of loneliness and casual self-loathing that usually drive the classic country song. (Johnny Cash’s brilliant cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” proves that you can still produce an emotionally wrenching country song and make a few bucks in the process.) The documentary flirts with complexity, and Wright is occasionally disconcertingly frank about the torment that led her to depression and thoughts of suicide, but the film is ultimately too concerned with courting the singer’s fans to deliver anything more than a theatrical release of a very special episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.
The center of Wright’s escalating doubt and panic, of course, was her homosexuality, which she hid for over a decade before famously coming out to the world in 2010 in conjunction with a memoir that also delved into her contentious and abusive relationship with her ultra-conservative mother. Wright’s reluctance is understandable, of course, as being outwardly gay is difficult enough in the general pop-cultural landscape, while being practically verboten in the largely conservative world of country music.
There’s certainly a place for a grounded film about Wright in our Proposition 8-addled times, but Wish Me Away, in its apparent eagerness to frequently play on CMT someday, rarely explores a glaring irony: that the source of Wright’s salvation, her unwavering belief in God, is also quite obviously what led to her near undoing. The film is uneasy about homosexuality in general, as it never really disputes the notion that it’s evil. Filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, themselves out, were probably trumped by a difficult task: to fairly portray the deeply religious milieu that torments Wright without succumbing to cheap armchair generalizations about folks who take organized religion deeply seriously. That aim is commendable, but the filmmakers run into trouble in their eagerness to sell Wright’s ultimate acceptance by most of her family as a conventional happy ending.
The film implicatively treats gay people as, yes, human beings like everyone else, but as somewhat disturbed Somethings that we must learn to tolerate in order to pass a test inherent to devout Christianity. (That’s a step above hate crimes, but only a step.) And the way the film handles Wright’s coming-out party is equally disturbing; it’s so choreographed and fussed over by publicists as to confirm bigoted notions that going gay was merely a PR stunt. Early portions of Wright wrestling with her misplaced guilt disturbingly cut to the bone of the cost of a societal sickness, but the conclusion is unforgivably shallow and pandering. Wish Me Away means to say Be Who You Are, but it inadvertently says If You Insist on Being Who You Are Here’s How.