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
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.