Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir is filmed by Aussie Joel Edgerton, and the often low-key but powerful result shines an unholy light on the whole appalling practice of ‘gay conversion therapy’ (even if it isn’t quite called that here).
Edgerton’s second film as director, co-writer, co-producer and co-star (after the impressive psychodrama The Gift) is pretty shocking at times, but significantly more shocking is the realisation that this inhuman process goes on in this country as well, and that more than a few prominent politicians none-too-secretly support it.
Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is Conley’s proxy, a teenager in the early 2000s introduced as he’s taken to ‘Love In Action’, a church-affiliated, year-long program intended to cure young (and not so young) guys and girls of the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. We then cut backwards and forwards (sometimes slightly awkwardly) to investigate how Jared found himself in this situation and what happens as he grows increasingly uneasy with the methods of supposed counsellor Victor Sykes (Edgerton himself).
Jared was a kid living in his Atlanta family home with his Baptist preacher Dad Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his seemingly understanding Mom Nancy (Nicole Kidman), but we see that he grows troubled as he gets older and, eventually, resists the lustful advances of his parent-sanctioned girlfriend Chloe (Madelyn Cline).
A series of circumstances lead to his outing and his Dad using quiet force to get the kid to Love In Action instead of university (where, as Victor notes, they would be studying sinful books like The Picture Of Dorian Gray and Lolita). Some months pass as he’s taught to blame possible elements within his family for his sexual urges, as well as, much more problematically, actual members of his family, and there’s a veritable boot-camp with the sneeringly born-again Brandon (a very scary Flea) where the boys (and some of the girls) are taught all about the importance of proper masculine conduct.
The other poor participants in the program are a memorable mob: there’s miserable Cameron (Britton Sear), frightened Sarah (Jesse LaTourette) and the very striking Gary, who’s played with a kind of deadened sadness by actor/singer/model Troye Sivan (looking like he’s stepped out of an ‘80s music video).
Hedges is excellent here and captures all of Jared’s internalised pain and bemusement, and he somewhat out-acts problem-children stars Kidman and Crowe, whose performances begin vaguely stiltedly but warm up. In fact, Nicole’s biggest scenes towards the end are very fine and fiery, and she’s never really been better.
And the questions just keep coming. What will happen if Jared breaks out of the program? Will he be damned forever if he spends the night with Xavier (Théodore Pellerin)? Will the ugly reality of this situation drive Nancy from her husband – and her God? And can Jared ever truly forgive his father for what he’s done?
You know, like in The Bible?