So much of the movie industry depends on timing, or the lack thereof. Films that initially seem of the moment can languish in development hell, never to emerge. Similarly themed films that were conceived years and careers apart can suddenly develop at the same time, resulting in two volcano movies, two asteroid movies, two animated-ant movies.
But then there are the happy-but-sad accidents of timing, when just the right story arrives at just the right cultural moment – even if most everyone involved wishes that weren’t actually the case.
Such is the perfect-but-not arrival of Boy Erased. The new drama explores the world of “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ youth – that is, religion-centric institutions which promise that participants can “pray the gay away” – just as the Trump administration takes sharp aim at that same community.
The film, which opens in select Canadian cities Nov. 9, is being released two years after the Republican Party tacitly endorsed conversion therapy; two weeks after The New York Times reported that the White House was considering rolling back recognition and protection of transgender people under federal civil rights law; and three days after the Democrats failed to mount a “blue wave” against the GOP in the U.S. midterm elections.
“I wish the timing wasn’t what it was,” Garrard Conley, whose 2016 memoirs serve as the basis for the film, says during an interview in Toronto this week. “When I wrote the book, I was still in the Obama administration, but now that I’m in the Trump era, it feels a little queasy to humanize these people.”
By “these people,” Conley means his own parents, who in 2004 shipped their son to conversion therapy when he was a teenager growing up in Arkansas. Boy Erased, both Conley’s memoirs and the film directed by Joel Edgerton, chronicles that heart-wrenching experience, in which therapy participants are demonized for being who they are, with “therapists” often taking extreme measures to relieve them of their “sin.”
Eventually, Conley’s mother realized the fact that her son’s sexuality was no abomination and pulled him out of the sessions. To this day, though – past his book’s publication, past the casting of rising star Lucas Hedges as Garrard and past the movie’s high-profile premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival – Conley’s Baptist minister father has not quite embraced his son’s life.
“My mom is completely on my side, and my dad is … complicated,” Conley says, noting that while his mom has seen, and enthusiastically responded to the film (especially Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of her), his father has yet to watch it. “He’s coming around slowly. I do think that people can change. But …”
It's here where Conley pauses, his mind seemingly fixated on the U.S. midterms.
“… but the rest of the country right now, it sometimes doesn’t feel as if change is possible,” he adds. “The illusion of change is what holds us back sometimes in progressive movements. That we have to meet in the middle. I’m not going to meet in the middle with, say, a racist person. There’s no ‘mild’ racism. You have to take a side. We’re getting to a point where people who are in power can really harm us. It’s time to shout instead of talk.”
Asked whether the he thinks the film indeed shouts, Conley offers a surprising answer.
"No, I don't. When the movie was being made, we knew that we wanted to make sure that everyone knew that 700,000 to 800,000 people in America had been in conversion therapy. We wanted to speak to people who were still on the fence," he says. "I still think the movie has incredible value, but I'm realistic as to whether or not it will [change people's minds]. I think it's going to preach to the choir."
This is somewhat off-message conversation for a publicity tour, at least compared with the film’s TIFF junket, where Edgerton underlined his film’s carefully balanced approach. The director, who also wrote the screenplay and co-stars as one of Conley’s counsellors, presents conversion therapy as harmful and hypocritical, but also refuses to neatly vilify its practitioners.
"If it was all barbed wire and rust, the story would have no space for redemption, and the reason I wanted to make Garrard's story was that after I read his book, it was clear that everyone had the space to redeem themselves," Edgerton said in an interview during the festival. "It was important to not throw God under the bus, or throw individuals under the bus, but to just look at what happens when people's agendas don't match up. And to underline that Garrard was the victim here."
So, the movie does indeed favour talking over shouting. But Conley is still quick to praise Edgerton, known more for his varied on-screen performances (Loving, Zero Dark Thirty) than his directorial efforts. (Boy Erased is Edgerton’s second film behind the camera; his first, the low-budget thriller The Gift, couldn’t have acted as a more unlikely precursor.)
“I was thrilled with him taking it on, because he listened to me. He partnered with every LGBTQ organization I told him to partner with, he hired queer actors and there were many producers who were LGBTQ. It felt like a very queer set,” Conley says. “I understand the hesitation that some people have about a straight male director for this story, and maybe this film is more straight for that reason, but Joel was very forthright about what he was doing: He wanted to speak to people like my father, and he did.”
Whether Boy Erased will actually reach and affect people such as Conley’s father, though, is an open question.
“The unfortunate thing is, it’s a business,” Conley says. “If it does well in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are the three places that least need it, it’ll go to other cities. If it doesn’t, then it’s moot. But I’m hopeful that people get to it.”
And if audiences do embrace it, there’s hope for another, smaller film that experienced the same perfect-but-not 2018 timing: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, this year’s other conversion-therapy drama, from director Desiree Akhavan, who is bisexual.
“In a perfect world, Boy Erased, which is a really dramatic rendition of what I think is a true version of conversion therapy, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is a bit more campy and queer, would both have the same distribution, and people could see both,” Conley says. “It’s so annoying to be told that only so many queer people can be in the room at the same time. How many First Mans do we have in the world? Oh no, there’s another space movie, we can’t have another one. What is that?”
Boy Erased, then, will do the soft talking for now – while Conley will keep raising his voice louder.
Boy Erased opens Nov. 9 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.