LAFF 2011 Review: WISH ME AWAY
WISH ME AWAY tells the raw and honest story of country music singer Chely Wright and her struggle to come to terms with her true identity while not losing her family, friends, and career in the process. The film follows Wright as she makes the decision to come out, not just to her fans and public, but also to those closest to her and in many ways, herself. We watch as Wright and her team coordinate her public “coming out,” while at the same time Wright finally tells her family and close friends the truth about herself.
Although the entertainment industry is populated with many different characters, country music (rooted in America’s heartland) has remained less than accepting of those who may embody characteristics they feel go against the teachings of the Bible. As Wright stated at the beginning of the film, “Nobody is out in Nashville.” Wright was brought up in the church and spent years hating herself because she had been taught that who she was, and how she truly felt, was wrong. She made a promise to herself at a very young age that she would simply stifle those feelings and focus instead on her music, letting that become the love of her life.
As Wright’s career began to take off, she became the shining star of her hometown of Wellsville, Kansas (located in the Bible belt); but that success came with the pressure to uphold the values she was raised with. Wright created an identity for herself that embodied these values and ideas, constantly hiding her true self. Although hints at her truth shined through in her song lyrics (with the title for the film coming from her song, "Wish Me Away"), Wright kept her private life just that, even hiding that fact that she was in a serious relationship with her then live-in girlfriend.
The pressure to keep up her public persona became too much and, although Wright was the one to end the relationship, she came out of its demise heartbroken. Since no one in her life had even known she had been in a relationship, Wright was left with no one to turn to and realized she had worked so hard to create a life that ended up leaving her feeling trapped. Wright found herself with a gun in her mouth, but before she could make the selfish decision to end her life, she thought about the kids out in the world struggling with the same issues and thoughts of suicide and decided to instead turn her focus towards helping them.
Wright realized that although her position in the spotlight was one of the many reasons keeping her in the closet, it was also a rare opportunity to use that attention to make her voice an influential one. In a poignant moment expressed through one of her personal video diaries, Wright painfully admitted that while she tried to give back by creating programs to put music back into schools, she would hand a child who she knew was like her and dealing with the same issues a trumpet rather than understanding. It was in this moment that Wright knew she had to step forward and stop hiding, not just for herself, but for those who needed her to be their advocate.
WISH ME AWAY, as told by directors Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf (also known as the TV Gals), utilized candid interviews and video footage (filmed by both Birleffi and Kopf and Wright herself) with true courage, never shying away from the film's more painful moments, resulting in a unshakable narrative. The film does falter by starting off with Wright’s anxiety in the days leading up to her public announcement, then backtracking to give us her history and back story, eventually muddling the time line as we go from a countdown of the mere days before her big reveal and to then jump back in time to the months prior. The film could have been better served to tell the story in a more linear format, giving the build up to the climactic reveal and impact of Wright coming out a bit more punch.
In a time when bullying and marriage rights are something we as a society are currently dealing with, WISH ME AWAY is not only a moving documentary, it is an important and necessary piece of filmmaking. Regardless of one’s own sexuality, the film hits on issues anyone can relate to about guilt, fear, persecution, and acceptance. Being given the opportunity to watch Wright’s real struggle to take something she once viewed as her biggest flaw and turn it into one of her biggest successes was nothing short of powerful and inspiring.