Here's the plot: Mark, a young gay man with a penchant for drugs, hustlers and wild nights in cheap motel rooms, hits bottom. His brother takes him to Genesis House, an ex-gay ministry run by Gayle, who is hell-bent on "curing" men of their homosexuality. Over smoothies one day at a shopping mall, she confesses to him why she is so intent on her calling. But the plot is thickening: Mark is developing a friendship with Scott, also at Genesis House for the "cure," and their sexual attraction is becoming more and more difficult to keep at bay. . . .
Gays versus the religious right. Culture wars that promise to heat up in this fall's election. Lines drawn in the sand. Right versus wrong. Pick your side, and paint the other as the devil.
And that's precisely what the creators of "Save Me" were determined not to do with their film, which is set in New Mexico and opened Friday in New York, to be followed by a national rollout this fall.
"As an actor, you are your characters' best friend, you can't hate them, or judge them," Judith Light, who plays Gayle, told ABCNews.com. Light ("Ugly Betty," "Who's The Boss?") is a longtime activist and friend of the LGBT community.
"Gayle is a woman who is very intent on creating a world for herself that will absolve her of her own personal guilt," continued Light. Gayle's teenage son, she reveals to Mark that day in the parking lot, was gay and died of a drug overdose.
"Gayle has turned to her religion to, in a sense, save her and has gotten hoisted on her own petard," said Light. "The love story developing between the two men has the potential to teach her about love. Her husband gets it, and she is unwilling to listen."
Nevertheless, added Light, "she is not evil in any way. She thinks she's doing the right thing."
A Hot-Button Issue
Light was one of the film's producers; the script was in development for 11 years, as the controversial issue of ex-gay ministries and the idea of "curing homosexuality" has moved in and out of the political and media spotlight.
Two years ago, the Rev. Ted Haggard, after being outed as gay by a male escort and resigning as leader of his Colorado megachurch and as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, reported having spent three weeks in intense therapy and announced at the end that he was "completely heterosexual."
Exodus International, an ex-gay ministry with more than 150 ministries in 17 countries, bills itself as an "interdenominational Christian organization promoting the message of freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ." Just last year, three former Exodus leaders apologized at a news conference in Hollywood for the harm they had caused men and women who believed that prayer could change sexual orientation.
Although Light's performance is sympathetic toward Gayle – "We weren't painting her into a corner," she said – the actor, through her involvement with the LGBT community, is adamantly opposed to the concept of ex-gay ministry. She told ABCNews.com that she has seen "the damage that is done in the name of religion to these young people's lives." Some people she's talked with "believed they were unworthy and wanted to kill themselves. Instead of building up one's self esteem and honoring who one is, they're told by society, a government, their religion, their family that it's not OK to be who they are."
"Save Me" was initially a campy comedy, but the producers, who include lead actors Chad Allen (who began his career at the age of 8 on "St. Elsewhere") and Robert Gant ("Queer as Folk"), wanted to tackle it in a serious, meaningful way. Allen and Gant are partners in Mythgarden, a new production company whose focus is on gay-themed films. (One of their projects in development is "The Way Out," about an elderly gay man confronting homophobia once again after he's forced into a nursing home.)
Light's husband, Robert Desiderio, worked on the rewrite. Robert Cary was brought in; he and Light had recently worked together on "Ira & Abby," a Woody Allenesque (hetereosexual) romantic comedy, which New York Times reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis called "a breezy riff on monogamy, trust, and how to make love last."
Cary, who, like Allen and Gant, is openly gay, told The Advocate in January 2007 that when the film played at the Sundance film festival he thought it was important "to create a place that wasn't horrific or extreme because I wanted to tell a story that had a sense of compassion for characters on both sides. I wanted to tell this story in a way that doesn't judge the characters before their actions speak for themselves."
Among those in attendance at the Sundance screening were a group of students from Fuller Theological Seminary, located in Pasadena, Calif., brought by Craig Detweiler, a professor of theology and culture.
"The filmmakers made this brave and edgy film; they didn't expect anyone from the Christian community to show up, let alone be at the premiere," Detweiler told ABCNews.com. "I think it was important for both Chad [Allen] and the students -- for Chad to feel welcomed and received with warmth and appreciation by seminarians, for the students to be challenged by such a faith-affirming film. Chad's character in the film finds God and finds love.
"I think the film is doubly challenging," he added. "It tramples on the sacred-secular-political divide, and brings both sides of the culture war into the same film and tweaks both of their stereotypes. That's a rare and brave thing to do in these highly politicized times."
"It was extraordinary," Allen told Christianitytoday.com, "because we went into this thinking, Can we even have this conversation? Can we get people 'on the other side of the aisle' to even come see the film? But Craig and his students were there, and we had an amazing time getting to know them. I realized at that point that we were on to something. If this movie can in some small way encourage that conversation, then I've done my job."
Seymour Wishman, president of First Run Features, which is distributing the film, largely credits Judith Light's performance for the film's effectiveness. "She makes the character very sympathetic. I would not have taken a film if there were a stereotype of a religious zealot."
To prepare for her role, Light looked to the mother of Herb Hamsher, her manager and a fellow producer on "Save Me." "She is a very, very deeply Christian woman who, when he came out to her, they had a real process around it," she told ABCNews.com. "I watched her transform in relation to him. He asked that she love him and reexamine her beliefs. And [unlike Gayle] she did. I used her as my model."