Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA/Australia, 2018. Anonymous Content, Blue-Tongue Films, Focus Features, Perfect World Pictures. Screenplay by Joel Edgerton, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley. Cinematography by Eduard Grau. Produced by Joel Edgerton, Steve Golin, Kerry Kohansky-Roberts. Music by Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans. Production Design by Chad Keith. Costume Design by Trish Summerville. Film Editing by Jay Rabinowitz.
The grim reality of gay conversion therapy in America, as written about in Garrard Conley’s book about his own experiences with attempting to “cure” his homosexuality and get him more in line with his family’s Christian values.
In the film adaptation, Lucas Hedges plays a college freshman (now renamed Jared Eamons) who devastates his pastor father (Russell Crowe) and devout Christian mother (Nicole Kidman) by informing them that an accusation made by his best friend at school has a basis in truth: he does think about men that way, and agrees when his parents ask him to attend a therapeutic retreat led by Joel Edgerton (who also writes the screenplay adaptation and directs).
Behind the closed door of this sinister institution, Hedges is put through group counselling sessions that focus on shame-based moral instruction, the charismatic leader telling his recruits that the world’s insistence that they are naturally born that way is actually secular propaganda that takes them away from the narrow path proscribed by the Christian church. The strange activities (including making charts of your family’s sins, supposedly your uncle’s alcoholism has resulted in your gayness) rub Hedges the wrong way from the start despite his initial intention to make the best of the situation and, gradually, his distrust becomes horror when he sees the abusive treatment of failing candidates taking the form of phony funerals and ice baths.
When it finally comes time to stop the insanity, it means squaring off with his parents about who he is, and results in the three members of the family going on their own separate journeys. This lesser follow-up to the superior Miseducation Of Cameron Post benefits from its appealing cast and credible dialogue but is undone by an uneven tone that can never find the story’s axis. Whether it’s about Hedges dealing with the therapy retreat, with his own abandonment of the life he was raised in or the development of his family dynamic is never clear, and in trying to cover all three bases ends up feeling more like the film is scanning through a much bigger story and only including the most interesting highlights.
Kidman and Crowe give emotionally committed performances but aren’t actually believable as southern Americans, it’s more like they’re doing compassionate imitations of people from another country, but they take nothing away from a movie that has a fully sympathetic Hedges in the lead, who handles the moments of triumph and physical degradation with an equal measure of quiet strength.
For all the abundance of detail that is covered here, though, an interesting element of the story is strangely ignored, as these “therapeutic” retreats are often (though not always) prohibitively expensive and tend to draw not just young people from religious families but ones who are also very well to do; the combination of commerce and spirituality that is represented by Crowe (who also runs a very successful car dealership as well as his church duties) is a key factor in communities that, in wanting to uphold the smooth success of both matters, will go to some very bizarre and cruel lengths to keep their citizens in line. What this means, in short, is that a film that means to blow your mind with its outrageous truths is actually just another patronizing distraction of the bourgeoisie, in which social justice issues are exploited to prevent viewers from dealing with the economic imbalances that keep them afloat.
That said, watch it for Kidman’s jumpsuits, and try not to notice that southern mamas who put their sons above Jesus usually have way more fun wearing them.
Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Actor-Drama (Lucas Hedges); Best Original Song (“Revelation”)
Toronto International Film Festival: 2018