Movie Review ~ Boy Erased


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The son of a Baptist preacher is forced to participate in a church-supported gay conversion program after being forcibly outed to his parents.

Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Joe Alwyn

Director: Joel Edgerton

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Based on the 2016 memoir from Garrard Conley, Boy Erased is not the first film in 2018 to tackle the tough subject of gay conversion therapy.  Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post came out in late summer and featured a similar storyline of a gay teenager sent by their parents to a religious based program orchestrated to “convert” LGBTQ youth to live lives as “straight” people.  I haven’t seen The Miseducation of Cameron Post yet but have a feeling I would have emerged from that screening much like I did from Boy Erased: sad, frustrated, angry.

After a long internal struggle Jared (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) has recently admitted to his parents that he has feelings toward men. His father (Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) is a preacher in Arkansas and obviously this news isn’t received with much compassion or understanding.  Told he can either leave his home and job or go to a program to help cure him of these impure thoughts, he’s half-heartedly agreed to the latter and has been sent to a program called Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy assessment in Texas. Accompanied by his mother (Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Jared will spend 12 days being evaluated by the staff along with other youths facing similar ultimatums.

At first, it seems like this is something Jared might actually have put some faith in.  He clearly feels what he feels but also knows that to be gay would change his relationship with his parents forever.  When the director of the program (Joel Edgerton, Midnight Special, who also adapted the Conley’s book and directed) starts to implement the teachings in increasingly destructive ways, Jared questions which life would be worse?  Living his true self and having the chance at happiness, or continuing to lie to everyone for the sake of his family.

There’s a lot of tricky terrain to navigate here but Edgerton keeps the material nicely above pithy melodrama by encouraging his talented cast to lean back in their efforts as opposed to latching on to each emphatic moment/revelation along the way.  The performances come across as natural and even the Arkansas twangs are nicely muted (Kidman’s hair has the biggest drawl of all), creating an environment that sometimes feels documentary-like.  There are times when Edgerton skates the edge of hitting us over the head (literally) with his message but overall the subject matter is presented without much editorializing.

Conley’s true tale is one of solitary survival and that’s brought nicely to the screen by Hedges in a sensitive and nuanced performance.  The movie flashes back and forth from the present when Jared is entering the conversion program to an earlier time when he’s still in high school and then further forward as he moves into college.  We see the first time he gets close to opening up to someone and wince as he undergoes a traumatic encounter with a co-ed friend (Joe Alwyn, Mary Queen of Scots) we originally think will turn out much differently.  When his coming out story seems to be cruelly told for him, it’s a painfully tense moment as he desperately attempts to find yet another way to cover up his dark secret.

As Jared’s parents, Australian mates Kidman and Crowe nicely play two sides of the religious coin.  Both love their son but one has a much more difficult journey in the path to acceptance.  Hedges shares wonderful scenes with both but it’s an exchange with Crowe late in the film that allows both characters to exorcise some long-standing issues in a most powerful way.  Crowe doesn’t have to do much but listen to Hedges but he conveys so much with his eyes and posture that he takes us on a mini-journey of the spirit in several minutes.  As in life, Edgerton doesn’t have his characters change overnight but instead he presents building blocks for a bridge between two opposing sides and lets the audience come along as the people build a pathway to understanding.

Like Beautiful Boy also released in 2018, Boy Erased is as much a look at the parents as it is about the children but in the end I found Boy Erased to be a more relatable film.  Whereas in Beautiful Boy the character at the center of the family drama was making a choice to continue in a life that was proving destructive, Boy Erased’s Jared had no choice in how he came into this world.  His journey to discovery felt more authentic and, in the end, cathartic to this viewer.

 

Rare Soap Box Moment: If you are gay or know someone that has struggled with being gay this movie will likely prove maddening.  How these types of programs are allowed to exist and are supported in numerous states is a terrible thing.  Knowing many of these have no basis in scientific fact and are still covered by health insurance is even worse.  Legislation needs to be in place to remove these programs from receiving any kind of substantiation in the medical or psychiatric because they are selling a false promise to people Being gay is not a choice but something you are born as.  No amount of therapy, prayer, or government funded programming can change that.

Movie Review ~ Ben is Back


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A drug addicted teenage boy shows up unexpectedly at his family’s home on Christmas Eve.

Stars: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton

Director: Peter Hedges

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Well, we’ve all (hopefully) survived another Christmas and many of us will have spent Christmas Eve with our families.  While you may have weathered your fair share of withering relatives, bad fruit cake, and are coming home with yet another taupe turtleneck from Aunt Marge, you’ll likely not have had quite as eventful a day as the family featured at the center of Ben is Back.  Taking place over one 24-hour period in the lives of a family that’s all in a recovery of one form or another, this is the kind of harrowing familial drama that makes you glad you’re just dealing with an uncle with opposing political views.

It’s Christmas Eve in a small town in upstate New York.  On the way back from a church program rehearsal with her three children, Holly (Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias) is shocked but overjoyed to see her first-born son Ben (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom) standing in the driveway waiting for them.  For Holly and her two youngest children, Ben’s arrival is met with joy but for her daughter (Kathryn Newton, Lady Bird) and husband (Courtney B. Vance, Office Christmas Party) the return is anything but a Christmas miracle.  Burned in the past by Ben’s addiction to drugs and the horrific behavior that it brought out, both are leery that he’s changed enough to be trusted.  Holly chooses to believe her son has finally turned his life around and that his 77 days sober is enough proof for her family to see that he’s on a new path.

With her eye on her son (and her medications and valuables safely locked away), Holly spends the next day trying to focus on the holiday at hand while nervously watching for signs that he’ll disappoint her.  He’s manipulated her in the past and she’s ready to call him on any indication that he’s not being fully straight with her.  They go Christmas shopping, they attend an AA meeting where Holly gets a first-hand account of what recovery looks like not only for her son but for the men and women continuing to struggle with addiction in their later years.  Later, they’ll go on another more complex journey both physical and emotional that takes them through painful memories.

Written and directed by Peter Hedges (The Odd Life of Timothy Green), Ben is Back has a fairly solid and tension filled first half that eventually gives way to a second act I didn’t enjoy quite as much.  It’s at that midpoint the movie switches things up from a stress-inducing drama focused on the devastating effects addiction has on families to a more traditional storytelling arc that feels like something we’ve all seen before.  It’s as if the scripts for two separate and half-finished movies dealing with the same subject were cobbled together. That being said, I wasn’t ever sure how things would turn out for Holly and Ben and for that I was grateful.

What makes the movie so very watchable are the two lead performances, namely Roberts in one of the best roles of her career.  A true Hollywood A-List star, Roberts has coasted a bit in the years following her Oscar win for Erin Brockovich, taking on projects for fun (Mirror Mirror), in support of prestige leads (August: Osage County), or what had to have been as a favor (Mother’s Day).  She’s back in full force in Ben is Back, going total mama bear as she fights to protect her son from himself and fend off all others that may stand in her way.  Through it all, Roberts layers her character with idiosyncrasies and flaws that show she’s not perfect either but reinforce she’s human like the rest of us.  For someone so recognizable with that mega-watt smile, she’s remarkably adept at blending in with ordinary folk.

She’s matched well by Lucas Hedges (yep, the son of the director) as a man reckoning with his past misdeeds over an already stressful holiday.  Back in the town filled with memories that might derail his progress, the real reason he’s back isn’t revealed until late in the movie and makes what has transpired that much more heartbreaking.  Lucas does right by Ben and the audience in never letting us in on how much he’s telling us is true and how much is a put-on façade for the benefit of others.  While Lucas has less meat on the bone to chew on in the second half, he proves to be a good scene partner for Roberts and brings out colors in her that have long been dormant.

Acting as another somber reminder on the struggle with drug addiction in America (though not a preachy PSA), Ben is Back is most notable for the performances of Roberts and Hedges but also has a nice way of creating an atmosphere of tension that keeps you on edge for most of its 103 minutes.  You never quite know which way the movie is going to veer and even though the latter half of the film isn’t a strong as the first it eventually finds its way back to the heart of the family with a whopper of an ending.  Though it might be as manipulative as our titular character, the final shot of the movie really hit me hard.

Movie Review ~ If Beale Street Could Talk


The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.

Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis

Director: Barry Jenkins

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  In 2016, writer/director Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story Moonlight, telling a unique story about a heretofore underrepresented population of the black community onscreen.  It was a bold, beautiful movie that challenged viewers and our own prejudices not only to skin color but to our perceptions of love and acceptance.  While Jenkins missed out on winning Best Director, Moonlight famously went on to win Best Picture is an Oscar snafu that first saw La La Land announced as the victor only to have Academy officials quickly rush the stage to say presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read the wrong winner and the small indie Moonlight actually took the prize.

Two years later, we were all waiting with baited breath wondering would the next Jenkins film, If Beale Street Could Talk, capitalize on his momentum and solidify that Moonlight wasn’t just a flash in the pan moment of greatness.  Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, Jenkins has again adapted a work of great beauty that juggles multiple timelines and emotions and creates an utterly transporting experience.  While it couldn’t be more different from Moonlight in subject matter, it captures a similar spirit and builds on that earlier work, bringing audiences deep into the lives of two young lovers and their families dealing with a terrible situation.

Tish (KiKi Layne, Captive State) and Fonny (Stephan James, Selma) have grown up together in Harlem, their childhood friendship blossoming into teenage affection and then into adult love.  When the film opens, Fonny is in prison awaiting trial for a raping a woman and Tish has to tell him that she’s going to have his baby.  Through flashbacks intercut with present day scenes of Tish and her family seeking assistance in clearing Fonny’s name, we see how these two young people got to this place and time and mourn the likely loss of the shared life they’ll never get to begin.  Is the woman accusing Fonny doing so because he’s black?  Or was she instructed to pick him out of a line-up by a cop (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) that had a previous run-in with him?  What about the darkest question of all?  Could Fonny have actually done it?

Even though this is only the second film I’ve seen from Jenkins, I can already see a calling card style to his work. Like director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), Jenkins favors having his actors staring directly into the camera, which functions as a way of drawing audiences into the action and makes you feel like they are delivering their lines directly to you.  You suddenly become the character being addressed and the effect is unsettling, yet thrilling all the same.  Much of If Beale Street Could Talk are just conversations between ordinary people and the film isn’t afraid to keep things quiet and reflective, like in a scene with Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) recounting to his old friend Fonny what a black man’s psyche feels like after being in prison.

At the center of the film are the two impressive performances of Layne and James, navigating countless emotions throughout from the nervous excitement of a first coupling to elation in the face of fear at the news of their upcoming child to the desperation and eventual resolute acceptance of a broken legal system.  The work here, especially Layne as the film progresses, is outstanding.  The young actors are strongly supported by Regina King (Jerry Maguire) as Tish’s mother who is mighty and moving in several key scenes without ever resorting to the kind of showboating acting the role could have leaned toward.  For me, it’s not quite the Oscar-winning performance people are claiming it is but King is always such a solid presence I get why she’s at the top of the conversations this year.  I also enjoyed Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) as Tish’s no-nonsense sister, and Michael Beach (Aquaman) and Aunjanue Ellis (Get on Up) as Fonny’s parents who come calling for but one scene early on in the film and leave a sizable impression in their wake.  Familiar faces Diego Luna (Contraband), Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) show up in smaller supporting roles that thankfully don’t get in the way of our leads.

Nicholas Britell’s (The Big Short) brass heavy score is fantastic as is James Laxton’s (Tusk) golden-hued and period specific cinematography, all playing their role in picking you up and placing you exactly where Jenkins wants you to be.  Jenkins has a way with casting even the smallest of roles pitch-perfectly, with no one betraying this is a movie set in 1974 made in 2018.  While Moonlight was more of a film that led to further discussion, If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t quite have that same “Let’s talk about it” feel to it when the picture ends.  That’s not to say it isn’t highly effective or incredibly moving – it’s a movie made with emotion that you can’t help but be swept away with and that’s largely due to the performances and the way Jenkins brings many elements together to create a true movie-going experience.  One of the best of the year.