When Boy Erased begins, we see Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) driving her son Jared (Lucas Hedges) to a gay conversion facility. On the freeway, he extends his right arm out the window. Nancy glances over at him, frowns, and then asks him to retract it. He sighs and immediately complies.
The director of the film, Joel Edgerton, captures Nancy and Joel's dynamic in that understated moment. Nancy’s convinced that her son will get hurt if he doesn’t follow her rules. And Jared is as yet too unsure of himself to be assertive. He’s an unformed 19-year-old boy who trusts his parents, even if he has to deny his homosexuality in order to do so.
Edgerton also wrote and adapted the screenplay from Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name — although, at first glance, the Australian actor's resume makes him seem an unlikely candidate for the job. His first feature film The Gift (2015) is a creepy, psychological thriller. But in films like Loving (2016), Warrior (2011) and Animal Kingdom (2010), Edgerton can play macho characters who aren't afraid to be vulnerable.
On a recent press tour in San Francisco, he explains what drew him to the book: “When I was young, I was terrified of institutions like boarding school and prison.” Edgerton says that once, his dad once made a joke at the dinner table about exchanging Joel and his brother Nash for two kids from faraway Perth, and he burst into tears. “I was so terrified of being separated from my family,” he says.
Garrard’s situation, then, tapped right into his childhood fears. “Imagine being fearful of prison or being abducted," he says, "and then imagine that your parents were your abductors.” In the movie, as in real life, Jared’s coming out is further complicated by the fact that his father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a minister in an Arkansas church. It’s Marshall who decides upon the course of sending him away for conversion therapy, while Nancy silently complies.
For audiences who embraced the liberating gay love story in Luca Guadagnino’s film Call Me By Your Name, Jared’s obedience and willingness to suppress his sexuality may feel regressive. But Jared isn’t Elio. Edgerton says, “He wasn't that boy. This movie speaks to the majority of us who do grow up without that rebellious streak, without that self-possessed agency to grab a machete and cut our own way through the forest. Most of us like to hold our parents' hands through a certain section of the first part of life.” The director adds that, otherwise, “It would have been a short film about a kid whose parents say, ‘We don’t accept your sexuality,’ and he goes, ‘F-ck you,’ and moves to New York City or San Francisco or Sydney. But it’s not.”
To prepare for the film, Edgerton interviewed Garrard and other survivors of conversion therapy. For a while, he felt that he wasn’t qualified to make the movie. “And then I was like, ‘Well, wait. I'm just a conduit for Garrard and he's with me all the way.’ He approved of me to do it, because I think he saw how passionate I was,” he says.
While making the recent spy film Red Sparrow, Edgerton found himself returning to the project to push it forward. “This book chose me," he says. "I felt safe being involved as a non-LGBTQ person because I related to so many other aspects of the story, the sense of obligation to family, the fear of being institutionalized.”
In his memoir, Garrard describes his mother when she drops him off at the conversion camp. “She was all blond hair and heavy blue mascara, blue eyes and a perennial floral-print top: a spot of Technicolor in this drab place.” The filmmaker made a conscious decision to create that same drab palate on screen and to showcase Kidman’s Nancy as a bird-of-paradise in the midst of it. Boy Erased is as much about Jared’s waking up to himself as it is the story of his mother’s taking responsibility for the damage she and her husband have caused. However, as the memoir and the movie both point out, not everyone who attends conversion therapy is lucky enough to have a mother like Garrard’s.
When he ran into Guadagnino at a film festival in Paris last month, Edgerton told the Italian director, “You realize I made the movie about the phone call at the end of Call Me By Your Name when Oliver (Armie Hammer) says to Elio, ‘If that was me, I would’ve been sent to some institution.’” He made the movie about Armie’s coming out story, the one that’s set in a religiously oppressive America.
Before Boy Erased had even been released, Edgerton received a comment on social media that said, “Oh, enough of these negative gay stories.”
His response? “I get it. I feel you. It's beautiful that Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name are in the world because you need positive coming-out stories. For Elio, it was almost like when he came out, his parents said, ‘I know, pass the salt.’ And yet, when I read that comment, I was like, "Yes, but this shit's still going on. It's very much still going on."
'Boy Erased' opens Friday, Nov. 2, at Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.