LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Pride, the celebration of the LGBTQ community through the month of June each year, is as good an occasion to mark quite how much progress in the battle for equality has been made, and how far there is to go.
“Believer,” a sweetly earnest new documentary airing on HBO, has plenty of the latter; it exposes the painful ostracization and hatred of gay people in the Mormon community. But it shows plenty of progress, too, embodied in the person of Dan Reynolds, an appealing protagonist whose status as a proud ally is a splendid and sympathetic example of a society-wide change of heart that’s happening, albeit too slowly.
Reynolds, the lead singer of Grammy-winning rock group Imagine Dragons, is straight, and married to a woman. But he’s become increasingly troubled by the antigay beliefs, implicitly and explicitly stated, of his faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—and their seeming tie to a skyrocketing teen suicide rate in Utah. Alienating his family and jeopardizing some portion of his fanbase, Reynolds sets out to make a statement, throwing a concert festival, called LoveLoud, in Provo, Utah, with themes of inclusion, acceptance, and, yes, pride.
As a character, Reynolds is good company. That his and his wife’s conversations will sound to those schooled in the history of antigay exclusion and discrimination—they’re perpetually stunned and surprised by what is, to many, old news—makes him an interesting subject; we’re watching someone get educated in real time. Reynolds’s blank-slate approach to these issues, about which he’s still learning, allows for moments of narration by those meaningfully touched by the Mormon church’s bigotry. These include the parents of a gay son who died by suicide, who share moving recollections of their son’s vexed life in a community defined by a hostile faith. His friends, we’re told, would only associate with him when they were sure their parents wouldn’t find out.
These parents’ love and grief emanates through the screen, and helps keep “Believer” from tipping into what it too easily might have been: A look at the gay-rights struggle centered entirely around a hero who is not himself gay. Reynolds is careful to sit and listen to the grieving parents; he apologizes to his friend, the openly gay Neon Trees singer and festival collaborator Tyler Glenn, for his blindness, and then, crucially, de-centers himself and allows Glenn to express what it feels like to be out in the LDS community.
If anything, I wish there’d been more of Glenn, who’s seen late in the film presenting an award to Reynolds for his work on the LoveLoud music festival. Allies are hugely important in the struggle for rights, but they are, finally, supporting characters in the fight for rights of any marginalized group. Placing Reynolds at the center of this specific narrative does no harm and much good: It gives the viewer access to the birth of a social conscience and may lead to new respect for a doggedly devoted musician whose efforts continue to this day. (There has not been a sea change on gay acceptance in the LDS faith, even despite change at other levels of our society.) I suspect it’s Reynolds’s humility—his awareness of how little he knows about the gay experience, and his willingness to learn—that keeps a film in his thrall from feeling focused on the wrong story. Reynolds seems to push “Believer” towards sharing the spotlight by bringing in other voices; in so doing, he shows viewers exactly what the role of a good ally is.