Boy Erased (2018)
Based on the unforgettable true story.
There was a steady build-up of promotion around Boy Erased. With its core exploration of religion versus sexuality and an air of self-importance about it, its message felt urgent. And no, if you’re wondering, we’re not in the same happy territory as this year’s other heavily promoted gay-themed outing Love, Simon, which successfully deployed the genre tropes of teen rom-coms to explore the complexities of being gay in high school. Here we’re looking at something graver, the deadly serious dilemmas of sexuality versus one’s responsibility to family, faith and the self.
Based on the true story of writer Garrard Conley, Boy Erased follows Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) in the uncomfortable aftermath of realizing he’s gay. Coming out to his conservative Christian family, consisting of his hairdresser mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe), he’s given an ultimatum — either change or be ousted from the family. Out of love for his folks, Jared chooses option number one, where he’s sent to a gay ‘conversion therapy’ program called Love in Action, headed up by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), who uses extreme methods to try and pull homosexuality out of teens. Within the facility’s highly secretive walls, Jared finds himself increasingly confronted by his sexuality and whether it can, in fact, be ‘cured’ at all.
As writer-director (and actor in a supporting role), Joel Edgerton has returned to the big chair after last starring in his brother Nash’s quickly forgotten action-comedy Gringo (2018), while his directorial debut, the shadowy The Gift (2015), received critical acclaim several years back. Boy Erased is similar to the former in featuring a favorable ensemble cast, yet Joel keeps a tight focus here, centering the point of view with Jared and his direct experiences, along with flashbacks to the moments that made him realize his attraction towards men, mainly his relationship with college ‘friends’ Henry (Joe Alwyn) and Xavier (Théodore Pellerin).
A mellow Russell Crowe, The Mummy (2017), is decent when given the opportunity to play off Lucas Hedges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), even if this could’ve gone deeper, considering that much of the film’s chief predicament hinges on their dynamic. Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled (2017), is fine but feels like she’s cruising on autopilot — almost as if she’s walked off the set of 2016’s Lion and straight into this one, her sympathetic maternal instincts echoing that of Sue Brierley from the aforementioned film. As both supportive wife to Marshall and understanding mother to Jared, despite being caught between such love and loyalties, she’s the type of person who tends to look on the brighter but ultimately gets to say her piece towards the climax.
Joel Edgerton himself is as endlessly watchable as ever, keeping things low-key and allowing his fellow castmates to really go for the larger bursts of confrontation. Lucas Hedges being the central star has a lot of weight on his shoulders, and it shows in his rather stiff presence. It’s a bit of a contrast to the real Garrard Conley, who shows up in a few photos over the end credits, and appears to be a more animated sort of person.
The ace-in-the-hole, though, is the most unexpected, in utilizing famed bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flea, Baby Driver (2017). Introduced as a facility enforcer named Brandon, who’s a recovered addict to virtually everything, his leathery skin and hardened demeanor convince that we’re witnessing something of a truth when he gives a testimony. Watching him eventually turn on Jared then, going from accessible to intimidating, is one of the more unsettling character transitions of the film.
Of course, one of the underlying challenges in adapting a real-life story is finding that line between factual events and fictionalized ones, in an attempt to make the emotional journey accessible. With Edgerton altering the actual names, I imagine some license has been taken to create a film that, despite being sold as ‘based on fact,’ can be taken on its own individual terms. Now, I’m not sure what’s fabricated for dramatic effect, but a scene involving a faux funeral seems to be a bit over-the-top in an otherwise subdued affair, this scene involving literal bible-bashing to beat the homosexuality out of a tragic victim Cameron (Britton Sear). It’s an undeniably shocking moment yet I wasn’t quite convinced that such extremity fit into this narrative, this sequence taking me out of the movie for a moment. If it is a product of invention, then it almost threatens to undo the thoughtful, balanced exploration at hand, aiming the blame at the misguided authority figures, not the beliefs they’ve interpreted, which, as I understand it, is something of an important distinction for Garrard Conley and the message he wished to convey in his memoir of the same name.
It’s intriguing to note that if the above-mentioned ‘bible-bashing’ is even a partial invention, then, as touched on earlier, there is a sorely missed dramatic opportunity elsewhere in developing the on-screen relationship between the father Marshall and son Jared. They don’t get as much time together as you’d think and perhaps it’s part of the point with the father seeking an easy fix to what he views as something that’s simply broken. If their little time together does reflect reality, then it’s an area that could have done with some fictional elaboration, drawing out more from Marshall as he wrestles within his family, the community and himself. The resolution of the father-son relationship hinted in the trailer summarizes a great journey for Marshall, but we are never witness to it.
While I feel that this story does explore some uncomfortable truths about the unsettling reality of sexuality ‘correction’ programs and will likely reach a healthy audience, there are two things outside of the film that I feel may hinder its goals. The first is that this story has been told before within queer cinema, even earlier this year when youth camps were put under the microscope in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Another example is Latter Days (2003), the big, shocking turn being when a young gay Mormon is put through one of these ‘treatment’ facilities. The second is, unlike the highly accessible Love, Simon, Boy Erased is unlikely to reach those who don’t already support the LGBT community, and that’s a damn shame. I feel that for this film to have the desired impact (i.e., get communities to question the role of such programs), it needs to be seen by those who orchestrate these centers and those who unwittingly support them. But perhaps this is all just wishful thinking, as we can’t blame Universal Pictures or Joel Edgerton who have done a great job in making sure that they deliver a well-crafted picture.
Here’s hoping the eventual home release will continue the film’s central conversations around this important subject.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie