Stream It or Skip It?
Another true crime documentary hit Peacock, stemming from an NYMag investigative report. In the sea of content about cults and real crimes, how does this one stack up?
The Gist: At Sarah Lawrence College in 2010, a student named Talia Ray invites her dad to stay with her in her dorm after he is released from prison. Her father, Larry Ray, winds up setting up court in the dorm and forming parental-like bonds with many of Talia’s friends. Larry then moves into his friend’s Manhattan apartment while he travels, bringing the students and begins to run his cult out of there. Larry uses a variety of tactics to keep the students under his control, delving many of them into mental illness and prostitution work. One student, Claudia, finally tells one of her clients what is going on and helps bring Larry to court where the jury convicted him of all counts.
What Will It Remind You Of?: The documentary plays out like an episode of Dateline, completely with fuzzy recreations of the interactions.
Performance Worth Watching: The film doesn’t get first-hand accounts from anyone involved, but does have some insight from Ezra Marcus, the reporter who first broke the story earlier this year. Marcus shares how he first found Larry Ray’s website and the rabbit hole it took him down.
Memorable Dialogue: Lee Chen was Larry’s friend who lent him his apartment while he was traveling. But when Larry literally began renovating the apartment on him, Larry had too much. “He changed the lock on me…it took me over 3 years to get an eviction,” Lee Chen said, shedding light on a legal system that sometimes takes years to find justice.
Sex and Skin: Despite having “sex” in the title, there is nothing explicit in the documentary.
Our Take: Cults are a fascinating topic, which is likely why Hollywood keeps churning out new stories about them. The tales always include a narcissistic leader who uses their charisma and influence to coerce a susceptible group into submission. Sex, Lies, and the College Cult is no different, and the circumstance of the story — that Larry Ray was in cahoots with his daughter and ran his operation out of her dorm room — is the main differentiator to the story.
The details of the story are truly horrific, specifically for one of the followers named Claudia who was convinced she owed Larry hundreds of thousands of dollars and began selling her body in order to repay him (at one point, the documentary says she gave him over $2 million). Hearing the details and seeing some of the footage of Larry’s recorded videos are the only things that warrant the documentary, which often felt like it didn’t add too much beyond the already published reports.
The documentary especially left me confused and wondering how no RAs at Sarah Lawrence thought it was odd that he was in the dorm for such long stretches of time — the filmmakers make it a point to address Sarah Lawrence’s culpability after the students left campus, but there are still unanswered questions about what was happening under their nose.
Sex, Lies, and the College Cult is inherently interesting due to the subject matter, but the documentary doesn’t add enough to warrant a viewing.
Our Call: SKIP IT. While a fascinating subject, interested parties can just read the original reports for the same effect.
Radhika Menon (@menonrad) is a TV-obsessed writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared on Paste Magazine, Teen Vogue, Vulture and more. At any given moment, she can ruminate at length over Friday Night Lights, the University of Michigan, and the perfect slice of pizza. You may call her Rad.
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