This awards season — to quote Sam Cooke — a change is gonna come, courtesy of Focus Features. Today at Deadline’s The Contenders Los Angeles, the distributor presented two of its timely contenders in Boy Erased (which bowed in theaters Friday) and AFI Fest opener On the Basis of Sex, dramas that concern themselves with those who demand change, and the fights that make progress possible.
Directed by Mimi Leder, On the Basis of Sex tells the story of young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and husband Marty (Armie Hammer), examining their struggles against gender discrimination and the obstacles Ginsburg overcame to become an iconic change leader. In the year of Ginsburg — which already has seen the Supreme Court justice celebrated with a successful summer documentary — Leder honors everything she has in common with her film’s subject. First, there were her own battles in her industry of choice, which she had to overcome. “I’ve had a lot of doors slammed in my face,” the director admitted in a conversation with Deadline’s Pete Hammond.
But there was so much more. “I felt I had to make this movie because I felt like I had lived through it in so many ways,” Leder added. “I’d never compare myself to the accomplishments of Justice Ginsburg, but we’re both Jewish women, we both have very long-standing marriages, we both have children. We both have broken glass ceilings in our own ways, in different generations.”
Leder’s was a film that emerged from a personal place, in more ways than one. The process started with writer Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew, who now has his first produced screenplay. As he recounted on the Focus panel — which also featured Hammer and Jones — he first heard the story at the heart of the film at his uncle Martin’s funeral in 2010. “Our friend just got up and gave a eulogy, and he told the story of the only case that Ruth and Marty ever argued together. It was her first case ever, and the first case to convince a federal court that women and men should be equal under the U.S. Constitution,” he recalled. Seeing here an incredible story that needed to be told, Stiepleman took it upon himself to bring a project to life, with the permission and participation of RBG herself.
Clearly in terms of its subject, On the Basis of Sex is an examination of change on a societal level. “This is a movie about how change can happen,” Leder remarked. “So much change has happened, and [there’s] so much more to go.” With its concerns for justice and equality, the film is equally a love story. It depicts a romance for the ages between two lawyers who support one another in their pursuits no matter what, regardless of what other people think. “They were partners. [Martin] was also willing to defy the gender norms of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. He knew that what his wife was doing was so important and needed to be done, so he was there to support her in any way,” the actor reflected. “I think having a role like that out right now in this time specifically, it’s great to show hopefully a ton of guys that your important job can also be supporting the family, and doing whatever you need to do.”
If Leder’s film considers change in a broad context, Joel Edgerton’s second feature takes an intimately personal approach. Again, there is an exploration of the intersection between love and change, and once again, the implications for society at large are profound. Adapted from Garrard Conley’s eponymous memoir, Boy Erased follows Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), a young man torn between his sexual identity and his conservative Southern upbringing. With a Baptist preacher father (Russell Crowe) and a mother (Nicole Kidman) who bends to his will, Jared is forced to enter a church-supported gay conversion program after he is abruptly outed to his parents. Indeed, in this case, the change that really matters is not the change that is initially sought.
In conversation with Kidman and Deadline’s Joe Utichi, Edgerton commented on the tens of thousands of individuals currently affected by gay conversion therapy, the 36 states without laws to combat programs of this sort, and the Trevor Project, an American non-profit seeking to protect LGBTQ youth from exactly these circumstances. While Jared’s journey through one of these centers is at the crux of the film, the director did see a number of broader thematic concerns embedded in the story. “To me, the film is about the choices we make as people,” he said.
For the director, it was hope that made him want to make the film—hope that people can challenge their own deeply-ingrained belief systems. Hope that redemption and change are possible. Meeting with Martha Conley, who served as the basis for her character, Kidman respected the courage it took to bring her family’s difficult moment to light. “I think even allowing the film to be made and allowing all of this to be aired to the world, which is an incredibly vulnerable position to put your family in, allows change and allows her to apologize,” the Oscar winner said. “I find that unbelievably moving, and I love her for that statement, with what she’s allowed us to do.”
“I think it’s lovely to think that it’s never too late to look at the things that you’ve done and the choices you’ve made,” Edgerton added. “It’s never, ever too late.”