In the early 1960s, Marcel is a sexually-conflicted teenager whose desires are discovered by his mother. Keen to “cure” him of his ailment, she puts him in electrotherapeutic conversion therapy.
But the therapy is tortuous and brutal, leaving Marcel shell-shocked and stunned. With nowhere left to turn, he finds sanctuary and solace where he least expects it.
Directed by Benjamin Howard from a script co-written with James Hall, Deviant is both a period piece that captures a part of history that many would like to forget and a thoughtful drama about faith and redemption.
Capturing the period in golden, almost halcyon tones and lighting, this beautiful visual atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive, especially as the storytelling delves into the barbaric nature of its old-fashioned “conversion therapy” that Marcel undergoes.
The film’s judicious and intelligent writing and editing both allows the audience to experience the ham-fisted approach that guides the shock therapy, as well as understand Marcel’s pain and sense of betrayal as he undergoes the “treatment” under the watchful eye of his mother. Taking us inside the process, the story easily makes the case that such a treatment is essentially ineffective and torturous — as early as 1966, so-called aversion therapy was described as such in a report for the American Psychological Association — even as those who allow it to happen or administer it are convinced that they’re doing good.
It becomes clear, however, that Marcel doesn’t change his inclinations. Instead, he emerges from the treatments conflicted, bewildered and ashamed of himself, a change detailed with great subtlety by actor Rudy Pankow. The shocks he received haven’t changed him, but only broken him inside and shattered any inner sense of wholeness or worth. But then, in the film’s unexpected narrative turn in its final part, he finds comfort and peace from a source both unexpected and yet eternal.
Religion has often played an antagonistic role in many stories about sexuality of all orientations. While “Deviant” both captures a historical moment while drawing attention to the same impulses that give rise to today’s version of conversion therapies, it also distills spirituality to its most simple, elegant and essential message of compassion and acceptance is both unexpected and remarkably soothing, both for Marcel and for the audience. In offering a soft place for comfort and acceptance, it allows to feel whole and worthy — and then fuels us with strength to face and change the world in the larger battles ahead.