VIFF 2011: Wish Me Away captures country music star Chely Wright's coming out story
The show must go on.
That seemed to be the message of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which pressed on with its opening gala party last night at the Rocky Mountaineer Station. I'll just pretend you hadn't already heard and inform you that the venue was being picketed by Teamsters Local 31 due to a labour dispute.
Consequently, my friend and I opted to avoid the gala party. But we did attend the opening screening, Pedro Almodóvar's elegantly perverse The Skin I Live In, at the Vogue. I'd rather not reveal too much as I think it's one of those films that's best savoured knowing as little as possible about it. Though there's little actual gore, it's not for the squeamish. I've never necessarily been an Almodóvar fan (or hater, for that matter), but this one did reel me in, and I admired how well crafted and compelling the entire piece was.
After that film, we dashed over to catch Wish Me Away, a documentary that captures country music star Chely Wright publicly coming out as a lesbian.
Coming-out stories never stop, well, coming out. Yet in spite of how many of them I've seen or heard, there are always unexpected twists and new things to learn from every story.
In Chely Wright's case, the highs and lows of the emotional rollercoaster ride of coming out are amplified by both her stardom and the fact that she's working in the conservative, "sexually repressed" (as one observer in the film puts it) country-music industry.
Wright first rose to prominence with the top 40 country hit "Shut Up and Drive" and later hit number one with "Single White Female". With her gorgeous looks, she also became a sex symbol, chosen for People magazine's annual 50 Most Beautiful People and FHM's sexiest women charts.
The seductive trappings of fame and success merely led her to procrastinate about coming out, and to become more entrenched (or trapped) in a life that was less and less her own.
In personal interviews and sessions with her minister, she's emotionally frank, not just with audiences, but with herself, about the heavy personal toll that living a lie took on her and her relationships. For instance, she expresses tearful guilt about the relationships she had with men, including fellow country star Brad Paisley, and reveals she had a closeted relationship with a woman for years, who she even shared a home with.
But this film isn't just an after-the-fact documentation. In addition to painting a portrait of her life, the filmmakers (see this article for an interview with them) capture her preparations for publicly coming out (which included releasing an autobiography, and TV appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show). What's also effective is the inclusion of emotionally raw personal video diaries she recorded that chronicle her self-doubt and conflicted emotions about the uncertain path she embarked upon.
Ultimately, Wright's story is one of inspiring courage. But it's one that is still in progress. Her struggles continue as her survival in the country music industry remains to be seen. It's also a reminder that coming out stories never really end. It's an ongoing, sometimes lifelong process.
Nonetheless, she's boldly kicked open a door that no one else was willing to, and will help to pave the way for others to hopefully follow. As several interviewees in the film note, there are others in the industry who remain closeted. It just remains a matter of time before they too can find their own way out.
The film plays two more nights (October 5 and 12). For full details, visit the VIFF website.
Here's a teaser from the film: