When Boy Erased director and star Joel Edgerton premiered his film at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in 2018, he was particularly struck by one audience member's response. "I met a young man, he was 22 or 21 years old, who was a volunteer at Telluride," says Edgerton. "Among other things, he said, 'I wish this film existed when I was 15 years old'."
Boy Erased is based on the memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, recounting his late teens, during which his conservative Baptist parents discovered his homosexuality and sent him to a conversion therapy centre called Love in Action. In his memoir, Conley remembers the psychologically damaging education from the centre and how he fought to reconcile his identity.
In the film, Garrard becomes Jared, played by Lucas Hedges, while Edgerton plays Victor Sykes, a fictionalised version of Love in Action's real-life former leader John Smid. Edgerton says responses such as the young man at Telluride's reminded him of the importance of using his platform to create change.
"Straight people – there are so many stories out there they can identify with," he says. "It really struck me when I met that young man, because it just created this whole world that I could imagine when he was growing up. I suddenly felt how much responsibility we could have pushing this film forward, and how important it is we get it out there and share it with as many people as possible."
Edgerton, aware of his position as a straight man helming the film, says he saw himself as a "passenger" to Conley's experience.
"I had so many conversations and meetings with him and other survivors," he says. "What I did every step of the way was try to render my film with the same empathetic approach that he renders his book, and all the characters in his life, so that I wasn't tuning it up to some crazy Hollywood malevolent thing.
"It was really just about being as subjective as possible – to go, 'this stuff really happens, and while it might seem not as dark and dangerous as you think, when you really sit back and think about the ideas that are being fed to young people, and the damage that that flow-on effect can have, there's something deeply dark about it'."
One of the most impactful journeys in the film is that of Jared's mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman), based on Conley's real-life mother Martha. While she initially lets her husband (Russell Crowe) send Jared to Love in Action, she soon finds herself conflicted as she realises how much it's harming her son.
"In real life, Martha is quite a mouse when you meet her – she doesn't dominate a room," says Edgerton.
"When her gut instinct was telling her that now was time to step away from the shadow of her husband's opinion, she did it with such strength based on her love for her son, that now in some ways, she holds the balance of power in that family."
Smid, who Edgerton's character is based on, has since left Love in Action. In 2011, he came out as gay; today, he lives with his husband in Texas. Edgerton met with Smid during the making of Boy Erased, and says he is working to undo the hurt he has caused.
"It's a difficult thing for him to completely be contritious about, because it means acknowledging the really dark outcomes of conversion therapy – namely suicide," he says.
"I will say this about him though – he's been a good supporter of the film. He really thinks it's an important thing to do. He knows that it's going to bring more focus on him and what he did in the past, and yet I think he feels that that's a necessary thing."
Who: Joel Edgerton
What: Boy Erased - Fundraising screenings for OUTLine and Rainbow Youth
When: Feb 14, Event Cinemas Newmarket, Auckland; March 8, Reading Cinemas The Palms, Christchuch; March 20, The Embassy, Wellington