TORONTO — Joel Edgerton’s film “Boy Erased” was always meant to draw attention to the soul-crushing practice of gay conversion therapy — but the director says it also seems to be coaxing survivors out of the shadows.
A number of times at recent film festivals grown men have approached Edgerton to share their own terrifying experiences. Many of them said when they were teenagers their devout parents enrolled them in camps to “cure” their homosexuality.
“People pop up all over the place,” the Australian actor said during a recent interview.
“Even last night (in Toronto) a guy ran up to me and said, ‘I grew up in Arkansas and I went to a conversion therapy camp in Arizona.'”
Hearing these stories doesn’t seem to shock Edgerton anymore. He spent the past few years immersed in conversion therapy ideology while adapting the experiences of one teenager into a film he directs and stars in.
“Boy Erased,” which opens Friday in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, is loosely based on a memoir by Garrard Conley, the gay son of an Arkansas Baptist preacher.
In the film, Lucas Hedges plays a fictional version of Conley while Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are his conflicted parents who decide to send him to a camp run by Edgerton’s character.
The film follows the young man’s experience as he struggles with his identity while being told by the camp’s leaders that his life is a sin he can undo if only he’d pray the gay away.
Making the script feel authentic took extensive research, Edgerton said. He met with Conley to discuss the details of his memoir and travelled to Arkansas to wander the buildings where a former conversion therapy camp operated.
He also spoke with parents in the midst of deciding whether to send their child in a conversion camp. He wanted to understand their perspective to make “Boy Erased” feel more rounded, he said.
While the conversion camp in “Boy Erased” is stationed in a U.S. evangelical community, the practice also has a checkered history in Canada, where same-sex sexual activity between adults over the age of 21 was decriminalized in 1969.
In this country, young people have also undergone therapy sessions that indoctrinated suggestions that same-sex attraction is a pathology.
Vancouver author Peter Gajdics recalled in his 2017 book “The Inheritance of Shame” how at 23 his parents sent him to a doctor who prescribed various psychiatric medications while performing a series of bizarre “reparenting” therapy sessions where he was instructed to act like an infant.
In many cases, LGBTQ teenagers subjected to conversation therapy face long-term depression and suicide.
Only in recent years have Manitoba and Ontario outlawed the practice, while Nova Scotia just passed a law prohibiting the camps in September. Earlier this fall, two organizations from Lethbridge, Alta., launched a petition urging the federal government to ban gay conversion therapy nationwide.
“Boy Erased” arrives as mainstream cinema reckons with the emotional damage inflicted on some members of the LGBTQ community.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” released earlier this year, features Chloe Grace Moretz playing a young woman who’s sent to a treatment centre after she’s caught in a sexual situation with a female classmate. It earned praise from some conversion therapy camp survivors for its accuracy of the experience.
Edgerton said telling these stories is important, but for “Boy Erased” he wanted to strike a balance that wasn’t simply “preaching to the converted.”
“There are still people who are in the position of Lucas (Hedges’) character where they may be given the wrong information… by people they trust,” he said.
“To see a movie like this and identify with his character is important.”
“Boy Erased” expands into additional Canadian cities on Nov. 23.
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David Friend, The Canadian Press