David’s Review: BOY ERASED

David Reddish
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*** 1/2 of ****

Joel Edgerton makes his sophomore outing in the director’s chair with Boy Erased, proving, if nothing else, he deserves recognition as one of the strongest, bravest, most talented directors working today. Filmmakers with bigger “name” distinction have taken on similar material and produced far less impacting results. Boy Erased will, no doubt, rank as one of the most gut-wrenching, infuriating films of the year.

It helps that Edgerton works from strong material. Boy Erased is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of time spent in gay “conversion therapy,” a pseudoscientific counseling process aimed at making LGBTQ people into heterosexuals. Most medical and psychiatric organizations around the civilized world have denounced the process as unproductive and extremely dangerous. Boy Erased underlines the reasons why.

Young Jared (Lucas Hedges) grows up the typical all-American, middle-class boy in a small Arkansas town with a former cheerleader mother (Nicole Kidman) and dad (Russell Crowe) that owns his own Ford dealership and operates as a Southern Baptist minister. The cultural norms of small town life don’t make much sense to Jared, especially the part where he’s expected to have sex with his high school girlfriend before marriage, so long as they stay together and marry after college. Rather than succumb to the pressures of his peers–and his parents, to boot–Jared breaks up with his longtime girlfriend on the eve of his ascent to secondary education. In college he develops a crush on a newfound friend only to get outed to his parents. Fearing for their son’s well being, Jared’s folks send him off to Love In Action, a conversion therapy ministry led by Edgerton’s Vic Sykes.

Like The Miseducation of Cameron Post earlier this year, Boy Erased exposes the methods of conversion therapy for the tortures they are. Though Jared returns to a hotel with his mother each night, the staff of Love in Action treat him more like a prison inmate than a patient. Administrators scour his cell phone for incriminating numbers or messages and shred pages from his notebook to break him of his attraction to men. At one point, Jared meets a longtime member of the group, Jon (Xavier Dolan, ever-creepy) who refuses to touch another man for fear of feeding his “evil addiction.” Jon looks more like someone from a Demerol clinic than a prayer group with his sunken eyes, premature age and nervous tics. Another longtime member, Sean (Troye Sivan), warns Jared to do as he’s told, so he doesn’t end up in the live-in portion of the program where the tortures become even more constant, and even more extreme.

If Cameron Post and Boy Erased both aim to shed light on the irresponsible and shady practices of conversion therapy, the latter seeks to indict an entire culture of hypocrisy and homophobia that feeds it. Jared’s father has no problem collecting a large income while preaching about the virtues of helping the poor and living in poverty. His mother doesn’t mind lying so long as they’re “minor” fibs. Even Edgerton’s Sykes, all bluster and brimstone, violates the rules of Love in Action by sneaking out of the facility alone for a cigarette–two behaviors expressly prohibited by the LIA code of conduct. Only homosexuality seems egregious and unforgivable in the eyes of God. This film has the chutzpah to confront the reasons why.

Edgerton directs his actors with sensitivity and care, getting effective performances all around. In particular, Kidman has the most dynamic character arc in the film as a mother committed to a religion with strict rules about gender and sexuality, but can escape neither the guilt of seeing her son in pain, nor the suspicion that the Love In Action team has no idea what it’s doing. Crowe, in a brief role, suggests a man torn between his commitments to his faith, and commitment to love his family. Flea, of the band The Red Hot Chili Peppers, has a stand-out turn as an alcoholic masculinity “expert” charged with teaching gay boys how to act like real men. His performance is at times hilarious, and other horrifying. Ironically, the weak link here is Hedges. Though he hits every emotional beat the film asks of him, and though he shows no inhibitions in some very tense scenes–including one of sexual violence–he never quite projects the fiery intelligence or desperation that the role demands. For that matter, he never even attempts the thick Arkansas accent his character should have. Hedges gives an effective performance, but not a dynamic one.

That quibble aside, Boy Erased does justice to its story and subject matter by finding subtlety and nuance in its characters. Unlike Cameron Post as well, Erased also finds an emotional catharsis a film like this badly needs without feeling like a cop-out. All this stems from Edgerton’s script and direction, which find structure in an unstructured story, and transformation without melodramatic speeches. If nothing else, Boy Erased proves its point about the dangers and tortures of conversion therapy with some bright and nuanced observations about American culture. Joel Edgerton also proves himself one Hell of a good director.