The best trick that filmmaker Joel Edgerton pulls off in the timely gay conversion therapy drama Boy Erased is an even-handed depiction of the wrenching psychological damage caused by the process while refusing to demonize the spiritual convictions at the basis for such so-called “reparative therapy.”
“It all comes down to belief,” he tells the LA Times. “If you believe that homosexuality is a choice and can therefore be ‘corrected,’ you’re told that by church leaders you hold a lot of stock in and there’s a place that professes to have an 84% success rate, then just maybe you go, ‘OK, this is a good solution.’ When I meditated on whether to really amplify the danger of Love in Action [the reparative therapy center in the film], it made me realize that I think it would be more terrifying to be administered therapy by someone who had true conviction and was telling you, ‘We’re all in this together and it’s going to be an amazing experience.'”
It is everything but amazing for Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), though the Love in Action center holds out hope for his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and devout, rule-following mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Jared is not informed (either by the Love in Action representatives or by his parents) that his enrollment in the 12-day program is merely an “assessment,” and that — at the discretion of its head counselor, Victor Sykes (Edgerton) — he could be placed in a living facility for an undisclosed length of time.
Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir, with a screenplay by the director, Boy Erased isn’t coy about the arduous and maddening process that Jared is put through, though Conley’s tale, while not exactly “happy,” ends with a reasonable détente between its main protagonists. That’s more than can be said for the scores of processed inductees that end in drug addiction, mental illness or suicide.
Boy Erased would be a tough slog to sit through if it weren’t for Edgerton’s measured approach to incendiary material. He refuses to create characters defined by goodness or villainy, though his own character Sykes is the closest the film comes to a mustache-twirling bad guy (with an ironically tragic twist in the end titles).
It helps that he populates the Love in Action community with stellar supporting characters, from the ex-gay staff that surrounds Sykes; to telling turns from pop star Troye Sivan as Gary, who’s simply going through the motions and telling the counselor what he wants to hear in order to get out and live his life on his own terms; to the rebellious and seething Jon (French-Canadian director/actor Xavier Dolan); to two quietly effective performances — Jessie LaTourette as the painfully shy, boyish Sarah, and Britton Sear as Cameron, a football player who experiences the worst this ‘therapy’ has on display.
The leads of Boy Erased are flawless. Russell Crowe hasn’t had a role this good since A Beautiful Mind. Marshall’s love for his son may not be evident at first, and his desire to do right by the teachings of the gospel informs decisions he can never quite admit to himself, or his son, as being wrongheaded, but the conflict is there in Crowe’s performance. He and Hedges have a final scene together that’s not exactly a reconciliation, and it’s all the more powerful for its unspoken though plainly evident undercurrents.
Kidman’s role as Nancy is the more emotionally satisfying of the two. She’s quicker to recognize the lunacy at the heart of conversion therapy, and her call to action is the distillation of a mother’s love triumphing over adversity. She’s still a dutiful wife to Marshall, but there is no doubt, once she gets ‘woke,’ who will now be calling the shots in her household.
Lucas Hedges, the 22-year-old actor Oscar-nominated for his performance in Manchester by the Sea, continues to shore up an already impressive cast of characters in his arsenal. Whether in supporting turns in films as different as Lady Bird and the current Mid90s, or his lead performance here, he’s effortlessly natural.
In Boy Erased, portraying a fictional version of the author, he lets us see the warring factions within him: the dutiful son, the questioning believer, the young man not sure what to do — or how to act — on his burgeoning desires. His slow-burning showdown with Sykes is a marvel to behold, and we get a glimpse of the advocate he will become. It’s a transformation that occurs in five unparalleled moments of screentime that should guarantee his second Oscar nomination.
Boy Erased, for some of us in the audience, may play like a horror movie. For others, it will be cathartic and empowering. The only flaw in Edgerton’s film is that his unerring and dispassionate approach can come across as muted. Yet the story itself has such powerful forward momentum that it’s impossible not to be moved. For many, it will be to tears. For myself, it was to a righteous anger not that far removed from a spiritual one.
Boy Erased, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton and Troye Sivan — is in theaters now.
All images courtesy of Focus Features