Movie Review: “Boy Erased” is Disturbing But Hopeful

BOY ERASED
Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Joel Edgerton, Joe Alwyn, 

Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Cherry Jones, Flea and Russell Crowe
Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley
Written and Directed by Joel Edgerton

Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs

 Out of Four

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of two supportive parents: his father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a successful car dealer and Baptist preacher, while his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is a self-styled hairdresser, and both are devoutly and traditionally religious.

Jared leads a normal, seemingly happy life at home, school, and on weekends he spends time with his girlfriend Chloe (Madelyn Cline.) But before Jared prepares to leave for college, Chloe wants to take their relationship to next level physically, and a frightened Jared breaks things off with her without telling his parents.

While he is at school and outside of the fundamentalist conservative bubble where he has grown up, Jared has experiences that make it more and more difficult for him to run away from a nagging truth about himself.  After Henry (a deeply troubled classmate with an ulterior motive) phones the Eamons to out Jared, their son reluctantly tells them that he thinks about men. After meeting with some men from the church, Marshall decides to sign his son up for conversion therapy, to which Jared reluctantly agrees.

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe shine as Jared’s religious parents. Method actor Crowe’s
astonishing level of commitment  to the craft is demonstrated by his bold choice to spend
the past 17 years putting on weight for the role of Pastor Marshall Eamons.
(Image courtesy Focus Features)

The film is based Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir about his time in the Love In Action Refuge, a gay conversion program based in Memphis, Tennessee, and though it is fictionalized for dramatic purposes, it stays very close to the true events chronicled in Conley’s book. Writer/Director Joel Edgerton also plays Victor Sykes, the Director of the Refuge. Edgerton has given himself by far the least sympathetic (and most difficult to humanize) of the lead characters, and it is a testament to the type of actor he is that he allows the character to stay firmly in his place as the antagonist and never pushing him the forefront or trying too hard to give himself an Oscar clip scene. Edgerton commits to sticking with Jared’s point of view throughout, and he has wisely chosen one of the most capable and dynamic young actors currently working in film for his protagonist. Hedges creates a wonderfully realized and human charaterization in a performance that is absolutely worthy of major award consideration. Whether it’s the iconic Brokeback Mountain or last year’s Call Me By Your Name, the mark of a “serious actor” performance as a gay character has often been measured by the willingness to do intimate love scenes, to the point where it’s become troubling and actually quite homophobic in its own way (making out with another man on screen tends to be crassly categorized as the same kind “serious actor” sacrifices for the art as the gruelling lengths that actors like Daniel Day Lewis, Christian Bale or Leonardo Dicaprio put themselves through, taking themselves to the point of starvation, freezing, etc.) But in part because the story doesn’t allow Hedges’ Jared physical or emotional intimacy with another person, there is a raw, naked vulnerability to Jared that doesn’t give him that crutch and arguably requires a good deal more fearlessness in the performance.

Jared’s and friend Xavier (Théodore Pellerin) tenderly (and chastley) tries
to help him confront his confusion and conflicted feelings.
(Image Courtesy Focus Features)

Kidman gives her best performance in a number of years as Jared’s mother Nancy, demonstrating that she still has surprises in her as an actress (we’ll see in the coming weeks if her much hyped turn in Destroyer is this grounded and nuanced.) Crowe, looking so robust that he is in danger of being labelled a “character actor” instead of leading man, takes a character that could have easily been impossible to feel anything for and makes you see not him as a villain but as a staunch believer man who is trying to do what he thinks is right while letting his own pride get the better of him. Edgerton has to be given a lot of the credit for his fierce commitment to avoiding “mustache twirling” characters, but to me one of the most important ingredients to great acting is the eyes. Crowe may not wear his emotions on his sleeve, but he is the master at portraying conflicted characters whose eyes reveal more than their words.

Edgerton the director takes a mostly low key approach (his idea of a money shot is an exceptionally well staged but subtle static mirror shot of Kidman speaking with Hedges), though he definitely has a certain visual flair (including frequent but generally effective use of slow motion in scenes without dialogue). He doesn’t display the kind of flair for staging and camera movement that Bradley Cooper does in A Star is Born, and as an actor/director he brings to mind Tim Robbins (especially Dead Man Walking) more than Gibson, Costner or Affleck. He’s telling an intimate story here, and resisting the temptation to go big is a major strength. The screenplay is carefully and beautifully crafted, and Edgerton wisely and maturely goes for believability over quotability with his approach to dialogue.

Boy Erased is not graphic in any sense, and yet it is more painful and disturbing than most of the year’s most violent efforts. It does contain a mildly controversial rape sequence, but anyone seeing it in context and understand that it really happened to Conley should see that it’s not equating homosexuality with rape (in reality, Brokeback Mountain was much more uncomfortable and questionable on that front). It is hard to say whether the harshness of conversion therapy will be more shocking to those who can’t relate to the zealous and unquestioning community or to those who grew up in an actively religious lifestyle. It perfectly captures the setting and feel, and the crushing intimidation, control and shaming that is misguidedly but sometimes genuinely meant to be loving and constructive. but can’t help but be damaging and abusive.

Hedges’ performance, more than anything, makes this film a classic the will be remembered. But Edgerton’s insistence on taking both points of view seriously (even if he clearly knows where he stands) is almost as crucial, and the two elements together make for a highly evocative story that makes a strong statement about the preconceptions we have in how we choose to define ourselves and those we love.

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