One of the amazing results of sharing something deeply personal openly and honestly is the depth of the subsequent response. The closing film of the Hamptons International Film Festival, Boy Erased, is based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, who was on hand in East Hampton to receive a standing ovation. The coming of age story portrays the horrors of a gay conversion therapy program where Conley was sent when he came out to his parents. Conley is the son of a small-town Baptist pastor in the South.
The film stars Lucas Hedges as Garrard with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents. In a word, it is powerful. At times it is extremely uncomfortable to watch, enraging, engaging, and heart affirming.
We are lucky in the Hamptons to have an inclusive community where love is love is love. This is not the case in many parts of the country and especially within some religions. Some of the best, brightest, and most accomplished gay people I know have faced the agony of religious parents who love them but truly believe they are going to hell. I have seen it tear families apart.
In the film, Conley turns to his mother to save him from the terrifying conversion program, which he described as mental and emotional torture. The psychological effects of being forced to say things that aren’t true has had a lasting effect on Conley’s brain patterns, and he sometimes doubts his own judgment.
Sharing painful truths can be difficult, especially to share them with one’s parents. Kidman does an amazing job in the film playing his mother, who has the courage to stand up to her husband and the community to save her son. Conley’s mother was at a previous screening with him, so sitting through the difficult parts of the movie with her was particularly unnerving. I asked if having Kidman portray her was a bit of a silver lining and he said for sure, and that she felt he had portrayed her in the memoir honestly, even though it was hard to read.
Conley also shared a story of getting a phone call before production from a rep asking where Crowe was. Apparently, Crowe went undercover to the church where Conley’s father still preaches in order to do a little research and went rogue. One of the most moving scenes of the film is the final conversation between Garrard and his father to decide if they are going to have a relationship or not. It stands in such stark contrast to last year’s film festival choice Call Me By Your Name, which has one of the most positive and moving conversations I have ever seen between a father and gay son.
While Boy Erased was amazing, it was being with Conley afterwards which was the most inspiring. The question and answer following the film was deeply moving, and then so many people rushed to the stage to engage with him afterwards and share their stories. This continued in the VIP green room at Guild Hall in East Hampton and spilled over to Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett where he joined the HIFF staff party and continued the conversations. Conley, who has only a thin layer of separation from his on-screen persona, who is Jared, is profoundly aware of the importance of this film and also the renewed interest in his memoir.
For someone who has endured so much, he has a strikingly serene spiritual demeanor. As an energy reader, I can say he is very centered in his vortex and knows the importance of what he is doing. As a writer, I also appreciate that he felt he could certainly be an activist but writing was not only a more fulfilling, but maybe even a more effective way to initiate understanding, compassion, and change.
Boy Erased from Focus Features opens in theaters on November 2. Please go.