By Nick Maylor
Joel Edgerton’s sophomoric directorial outing is a quintessential coming-of-age story that while very much steeped in Americana, should have a global appeal due to its intrinsic human themes. Starring alongside Edgerton (in a supporting role) are his fellow-Australians Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman; playing a Baptist pastor and his wife who send their son (Lucas Hedges) to gay conversion therapy.
Jared (Hedges) is a boy on the verge of manhood. He has a loving family, a steady job at his father’s car dealership and a loving girlfriend. The film is played out in a non-linear fashion, juxtaposing Jared’s time in the “pray away the gay” camp with the events that led up to it, including an encounter with a fellow college student who rapes him. Jared breaks up with his girlfriend before college and after the sexual assault incident, the perpetrator decides to preemptively accuse Jared of inappropriate behaviour. After denying the false allegations against him, Jared confesses that he does indeed fantasize about men to his parents. They are devastated and Marshall (Crowe) contacts members of his church to ask for guidance. The conversion therapy is their suggestion approach to dealing with the issue.
The camp is run by pastor Victor Sykes (Edgerton) who employs all manner of tactics to exorcise the “demons” that are affecting Jared. All manner of pseudoscientific nonsense is thrown at these kids in a futile attempt to convince them that they have a choice and guide them down the “right” path. For anyone who is wondering about gay conversion therapy; the facts generally point in a single direction: It doesn’t work, nor should it be tried. The psychological damage it can have on kids is tremendous, especially when it is combined with a strict, religious approach (as it usually is).
Imagine being told that you are inherently sinful because of your “behaviour” and that God will not love you as you are. Then you are told you can change it, only to discover (painfully) that you cannot. There are far too many examples of young men and women who have gone through this sort of experience only to end up feeling hopeless and taking their own lives. Alas, one of the attendees of Jared’s program does just this.
The film was written for the screen and directed by Edgerton, based on a 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley recounting his childhood in a fundamentalist Arkansas family who enrolled him in conversion therapy. Eventually, Jared’s mother (Kidman) becomes his support system when he is in dire need as she recognizes that the program is doing him far more harm than good. While the film does not have a happy ending with a bow wrapped around it. It does manage to bridge the family divide and on a larger scale, put the analogous cultural divide in America under the microscope; a clear intention of the memoir and the film.
Crowe and Kidman are great in their supporting roles along with Edgerton but Hedges performance is subtly brilliant and demonstrates the massive talent the young actor continues to demonstrate.
An important film.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor