Joel Edgerton brings conversion therapy memoir Boy Erased to the big screen
Opening Friday (November 9), Boy Erased is already being called a lot of things: an awards contender, a conversation starter, an “important” film.
Right. Sure. Okay. But even should it last through a marathon promotional campaign to arrive, exhausted, upon an awards stage to deliver, in 90 seconds, an exhortation about “ex-gay” conversion therapy, this is a deliberately modest film.
Like the memoir it’s based on, Boy Erased first depicts a household.
Jared Eamons (based on the memoirist, Garrard Conley, and played by Lucas Hedges) is the only son of a car-salesman turned pastor (Russell Crowe). His mother (Nicole Kidman) stands by her man. There’s a threat, after he’s outed, that Jared will be severed from his family—but this is mostly an internalized threat, a distance observed through the way he silently listens in hallways, looks up during prayers, watches others’ reactions to his father’s sermons.
Despite the “larger” issue of conversion therapy, this is basically the movie.
When Jared willingly checks himself into the program it’s not because of his sexuality; it's because he hopes it can bring him back to his family and restore his connection with a god he wants to believe in.
“In my life, anyway, my parents are my heroes,” says Joel Edgerton, the writer-director of the film, talking to the Georgia Straight at the Sutton Hotel.
“For them to have looked at me in my teenage years and told me something was wrong with me is such an inherently dark concept for a young mind that I think that’s more violent than [physical] violence.”
Edgerton’s film conveys this in an unembellished way.
The “therapy” isn’t that different from a heavily enforced youth group—albeit one without an exit. There’s a speaker delivering distorted, simplified bullet points, a captive audience occasionally asked to participate, and the whole thing takes place in a large rentable hall with a reception desk and piles of foldable chairs.
It’s an interesting choice. Even if, as the film suggests, this could be a lot worse, it’s still ground zero for trauma. This is only a little more theatrical than the suburban stories of all these teens, where parents, it can be assumed, speak and act with the same intent.
Of course, the film pulls back a little. It has to. It has to reach its ending, where Eamons sits down to await an iMessage to hear what his parents think of his story, now published.
“I just kept going back to the book,” Edgerton says, adding that every draft of his script went to Conley for feedback.
By focusing mostly on Conley’s stand-in, the film narrows its ideal intended audience. Yes, this film shows a struggle that affects many families, and many young people, both those who have come out and those who haven't. It is about the challenge of internalizing acceptance, rather than repulsion.
But it is also about an attempt to reach parents who, perhaps, disagree with homosexuality in religious principle, but can be moved when forced to look at a living, particular person.
“The people that are gonna go and see Boy Erased, that are gonna be lining up for tickets first and foremost are gonna be people who don't really need to be converted in terms of their understanding of how people should be accepted with their sexuality,” Edgerton says.
“I would love for it to be seen by the other side. And listen, there’s two ways, I think, to get the Christian community to watch a film. Either be really mean to them—or just be honest. Be respectful. And I’m not giving anyone a free ride, I’m just doing what was done by Garrard in his book.”
About that book: Conley’s memoir accepts its title in a way Edgerton’s film never does. It’s a text filled with survivor’s guilt (among other kinds), one that seems to have yet to fully process a kind of narratively circular self-hatred.
At one point Conley writes: “Yet the thought of abandoning my parents, of joining a community of gay-friendly people and somehow continuing life without them—this seemed even worse than suicide. Cutting away my roots and the people I loved would transform me into a shell of the person I once was.”
Edgerton’s film has hope on its mind. And a large way he reaches this is through the actors, mainly the ones in supporting roles.
Troye Sivan may be in the conversion program too, but by the end he’s singing a song over the credits.
Xavier Dolan can’t really show up in a film without suggesting the energy of the films he’s directed and starred in.
And Théodore Pellerin, a newcomer to American films (but a revelation in Philippe Lesage’s Genesis, which played at this year’s VIFF), is, in only one scene, an unmatched presence.
“I actually asked him at some point, ‘Are you a dancer? Are you a ballet dancer or something?’ And he comes from a family of dancers,” Edgerton says.
“There’s just something so divine about him. And it’s amazing how much of an impression he makes in such a short time in the movie. It’s the one comfortable space that Lucas’s character gets to inhabit.”
Of course, one’s level of comfort with the film will differ.
For some, it may be harrowing. An eye-opener. But there are also the directions not taken. One scene in the book, involving a wet fingerprint bleeding the colours of a photograph, conjures up the image that opens Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now—a very different, but suggestive contrast when it comes to parents psychologically searching for children.
And then there’s the way a memoir filters events through hindsight, as opposed to the clear-eyed horror of an aftermath piece.
Perhaps one of the keys to the film is Edgerton’s own performance. He leads many of the therapy sessions. His character, like most of the staff, is said to have gone through the program years before. And, like the part he played in his directing debut, The Gift, he may be a bit of a red-herring if one’s looking for someone to blame.
“The Gift was really about challenging the role of the villain, the typical role of the villain within a thriller,” he says.
“This was also in the same vein. My character in the same sense is leading the wrong charge. I’m leaving an open space for him to not be completely hateable and yet, he’s on the wrong side.”
One of the questions Boy Erased opens up then, is whether anyone occupies the role played in that earlier film by Jason Bateman—the well-presented guy who, escaping too much notice, manipulates and ruins people’s lives—or if the film would have it where, in a flattened-out way, everyone has their reasons, and no one can’t be saved.