Boy Erased: A Harrowing Coming of Age Film
Joel Edgerton makes his second directorial entry with Boy Erased, a harrowing coming of age film that illuminates the hushed proceedings behind conversion therapy and how it affects the family. Not always the easiest watch, it’s an important film (particularly for parents) that doesn’t diminish the complexity of its characters or their situation, but also doesn’t probe as deeply as one might hope.
The film tells the true story of Jared (Lucas Hedges), the son of a Baptist pastor in a small American town, who is outed to his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) at age 19. Jared is faced with an ultimatum: attend a conversion therapy program, or be permanently exiled and shunned by his family, friends, and faith.
I appreciate the approach Edgerton takes. Not only does he unflinchingly depict moments that are difficult to stomach, but he manages to find the love and laughter (as well as the irony), despite the film’s heavy themes and dark subject matter. Too often in films parents are depicted as being angry or ashamed of their children when it’s revealed that they’re gay; however, in Boy Erased, you can see that Jared’s parents still love him very much in spite of their inability to completely grasp their son’s sexual orientation — they just don’t always find the words to say it, but their love shines through.
Set in Arkansas (whose state motto “The Land of Opportunity” is prominently featured for maximum irony), Edgerton plunges us into the story in the aftermath of Jared’s outing after setting the stage with some home videos (similar to Blockers), as his mother is taking him to the Love in Action (L.I.A.) ex-gay program. Once there, we are introduced to the inhumane inner workings of conversion therapy, with all its verbal abuse, head games, and violations of privacy. With only little insight into Lucas Hedge’s Jared at the onset, Edgerton allows the viewer to soak up the lunacy of the program while slowing doling out nuggets of Jared’s character to build further intrigue.
We don’t get acquainted with Jared’s backstory until he’s forced to take moral inventory (similar to AA/NA programs, but way out of line given the context) for his “sinful behavior.” Edgerton smartly uses this moment to flashback to the catalyst of Jared’s outing and his first crush, which brings the character into slightly sharper focus and highlights the heartbreak behind his tragic circumstances. This also sheds light on the Conlon’s home life before Jared’s revelation, in addition to showing how his parents handle the information, which help to paint a more fully rounded picture.
The only aspect that’s a bit light here is how Jared feels about his faith when confronted with conversion therapy. Nothing’s explicitly explored, outside of his frustration, and Edgerton never presents us with a moment where he contemplates or reevaluates his Baptist upbringing or shows him living a happy, free life as a gay man. The side characters we encounter at the L.I.A. facility are also a little weakly drawn. They have interesting aspects that surround them, but we’re never given their full story, and they don’t have very strong arcs either. They’re only utilized to reinforce the program’s mantra — which is “play the part” and “fake it until you make it” — and to showcase the mental anguish these types of programs inflict.
The film is stitched together nicely, with hardly any dead space of fat; the two-hour long journey into the horrors of conversion therapy glide by easily, with only a slight drag in its latter portion. Oftentimes, editor Jay Robinowitz will cut a scene short, allowing the audio to bleed over into the establishing shot of the next scene, which really keeps the momentum chugging along at a steady rate. The tight editing matches the tone of Edgerton’s direction, which includes a lot of camera movements and close ups to place us into the subjectivity of the characters. There is a certain horror sensibility on display here, and Edgerton leans into that when appropriate to create scenes that boil over with tension.
With a grade A team of talent, far and away the greatest aspect of this film is its performances. No matter how big or small the part, the actors do wonders. Lucas Hedges gives another fantastic performance that stands amongst his best work. Even though the film doesn’t dive too deeply into his character, he’s able to bring such pathos and gravitas to the role, and he continues to prove that he’s a young talent worth keeping your eyes on. Kidman delivers an expectedly great performance, and she burns up the screen toward the end of the film. Crowe is a bit underutilized, but he makes for a convincing minister and is given a weighty scene near the close that shows his skills. Out of a many great supporting performances, Flea shines the brightest with his mashing of humor and intimidation.
All in all, Boy Erased is a solid and important film that brings awareness to the atrocities of conversion therapy and its repercussions that are still affecting thousands of lives today. It feels very authentic to the source material and doesn’t shy away too much from the complexities of the subject. It finds the right situation to end on, but it doesn’t deliver the amount of gratification one might hope — this is a film that very much needs a hug.
The film is slated for a limited release on November 2nd, and it is definitely worth your time and money, so see it if you can.
Rating: 3.5 “manly shapes” outta 5.
What do you think? Were you blown away by the film? Did you want it to probe just a little bit deeper? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always remember to viddy well!