Boy Erased: Why I wish my conversion therapy film was irrelevant

Joel Edgerton on his new movie, with Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe

The writer and director of 'Boy Erased' Joel Edgerton sits down with Tara Brady of the Irish Times to talk about gay conversion treatment and how parents can "send a child off to this horrible place".

 

It’s unusual to hear a writer-director hope that his film is soon irrelevant, but that’s what Joel Edgerton would like for his quietly devastating adaptation of Boy Erased.

Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, the Australian’s second feature as a director follows Jared Eamons (Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges), a 19-year-old forced to attend a conversion-therapy camp after he is outed by a college room-mate to his Baptist-preacher father (Russell Crowe) and religious mother (Nicole Kidman).

The issue of conversion therapy is an urgent one. The most recent US figures from the Family Acceptance Project show that 48 per cent of LGBTQ young people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation have attempted suicide, more than double the 22 per cent of LGBTQ young adults who had attempted suicide but had not reported any conversion experiences.

To think that your child has broken and to want to fix him, like he had developed an addiction to heroin or something...

It was new terrain for Edgerton. “I’d only heard that it existed,” the actor turned director says. “I was surprised but I wasn’t shocked. So when somebody told me that I could read this memoir about a boy’s experience of going through this, I picked it up very quickly. I have a sideline, or childhood fear and fascination, with institutions: asylums, prisons, anywhere where you are trapped against your will and you lose your freedom. I read the book superquick. It was like a train-wreck effect: craning your neck to look at other people going through pain. But it surprised me how much love was in the book.”

Taking cues from Conley’s account, Edgerton, who was raised Catholic, was careful not “throw God under the bus”. However misguided their actions are, the parents in Boy Erased are far from twisted monsters.

“The lack of understanding of parents sending a child off to the terrible place as an act of love; that’s a conundrum, that’s a serious conundrum,” Edgerton says. “To think that your child has broken and to want to fix him, like he had developed an addiction to heroin or something. It’s funny. It wasn’t until I read the book for the third time before I wrote the screenplay.

“I was interested that, three pages in, it’s dedicated to ‘my mum and my dad’, yet his mum and his dad are the reason why he went through all this pain. He understands that they were working within the information that they had at the time, the belief that they were given by their community, and, with his father being a minister, it was all filtered through scripture.

“It’s the dismantling of those things throughout the memoir that fascinated me, particularly his mother’s ability to go, ‘Hold on a second: my son is actually not being helped, and he’s clearly in a lot of pain.’ Her ability to then redesign her whole understanding of faith, to me, was a really good example of how we can examine the things that we choose to do in life and that may cause pain to other people. That was the whole reason to make the movie.”

Joel Edgerton: reading Boy Erased “was like a train-wreck effect: craning your neck to look at other people going through pain. But it surprised me how much love was in the book.” Photograph: Matthew Abbott/New York Times
Joel Edgerton: reading Boy Erased “was like a train-wreck effect: craning your neck to look at other people going through pain. But it surprised me how much love was in the book.” Photograph: Matthew Abbott/New York Times

Following on from Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance-winning The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boy Erased is the second major conversion-therapy drama of the past year. The emphasis of each film is, however, completely different. Speaking to The Irish Times last summer, Akhavan was keen to note the more universal aspects of parental fallibility: “Even if you’re not gay there’s a realisation that the adults in your life don’t have any real authority. That they don’t determine your life. Every teen has to realise that if they are coming from a home that is not supportive.”

Like Edgerton’s directorial debut, The Gift, Boy Erased borrows from the horror genre, notably in a harrowing scene in which a mock funeral is held for a young gay man.

“I have a fascination and a fear of other human beings,” Edgerton says. “I think the greatest force in our life can be other people. Other people can be the scariest things in our lives with the choices that they make and how they can come into opposition with our. Human beings, at best, are pure beauty and love and, at worst, are diabolical.”

Boy Erased opens on Friday, February 8th

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