Australian actor (and now two-time director) Joel Edgerton came to his newest movie, Boy Erased, from a place of fear.
“My fascination with this movie is a few complicated little parts,” he says at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Boy Erased had its Canadian premiere. “Ever since I was young I was fascinated – in a sense that it was the foundation of all my fears and nightmares – I was fascinated with anything about institutions.”
Stories of cults freaked out young Edgerton. He feared being sent to boarding school or, if he did something wrong, to prison. Abduction worries loomed large, especially after seeing Death Wish II at a too-early age, thanks to his older brother and cousins.
Which brings us to Boy Erased, based on a true story. Lucas Hedges plays Jared Eamons, a college student who tells his conservative parents (Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman) that he’s gay. Their response is to send him to a gay conversion therapy program run by an abusive self-styled therapist named Sykes (Edgerton).
The film is based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, which Edgerton picked up for its “salaciousness.” But it got under his skin. “The well of love and hurt inside of it, and the space for redemption, and the healing, made me come out the other side of the book so emotionally engaged with it,” he says.
“This book felt to me like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Ordinary People, a family drama about love and misguided intentions and lack of acceptance and pain and healing.”
It also reminded him of those early fears of abandonment and/or abduction. Edgerton was raised Catholic by loving parents – in fact, they came with him to Toronto and kept him up late the night before the interview, enjoying the festival nightlife. “But what if the two most important people in your life tell you that there’s something wrong with you, when you can’t necessarily do anything about it?”
Edgerton could have vilified the whole gay conversion therapy movement, which in spite of being discredited and in some jurisdictions outlawed continues to be practiced in some U.S. states, usually with religious justification.
“But it was really important for me not to throw God under a bus,” he says. “Empathy for everybody in this movie was my intention.” And so Jared’s parents are portrayed as misguided rather than evil. Even Edgerton’s character winds up more a figure to be pitied than feared.
“As much as some people were expecting a vigilant point-of-view movie, I just figured: Let’s just show what happened to him and judge for yourself. And what’s resulted is really a movie for parents in a lot of ways.”
Not that the film doesn’t have some fun at the expense of the movement. When Hedges’ character goes to see his family physician – played by Cherry Jones, a lesbian actress who’s been out for more than 20 years – she tells him: “It’s not my place to tell you your parents are wrong.” Then adds firmly: “But let’s say they are wrong.”
Edgerton hopes his movie will help drive change, but he’s aware it’s coming regardless. “I’ll tell you where the real evolution and where the real unification is,” he says. “It used to be that pockets of cities were where you felt it was safe for people to have sexual fluidity or to go and find their identity and community. And I think that’s still true.”
But he adds: “I think the unification on the internet is allowing kids to share their stories and feel like they’re not ashamed of stepping out and declaring what they feel or what they want.”
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