A challenging analysis of enraging circumstances.
From The Gift to Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s directorial visions are not bound by simple indulgences. In his leap from twisted psychological torment to emotional drama, there is a link; mistakes. His first film acted as a cautionary tale against, candidly put, being a twat. But this is more ambitious; a well-intentioned effort to string together heartbreaking family turmoil with a very real condemnation of one of America’s most controversial practices.
Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, the film revolves around Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), an 18-year-old “perfectly healthy, normal teenage boy” placed into gay conversion therapy by his deeply religious mother (Nicole Kidman) and father (Russell Crowe), who also happens to be a pastor.
We open with a showreel of Jared’s innocent, everyday childhood; we see an infant who loves blue and yellow, and wants to grow up to be a motorcycle driver. We skip promptly forward to him being dropped off at Love In Action, where he’s signed in and stripped of personal possessions, whether it be his phone or journal. Despite the affectionate name, the centre is prison-like, militaristic, housing a mixture of staff (including a particularly unwelcomely nasally, nefarious assistant). At the head is Victor Sykes (grippingly played by Edgerton), a seemingly empathetic mentor.
The first half focuses a lot on the banal day-to-day activities in a centre, which includes dissecting your family tree for afflictions which could have led to your homesexuality, declaring your “moral infidelity” to other residents, refining your hands-on-hips posture (“fingers forward, not back, it’s just the way it is” says a despicable manly man) and handshakes. There’s almost something laughable about the sheer absurdity of the staff’s persuasions, but Edgerton incisively digs without exaggerating his stance. The result is slightly more frightening than The Miseducation of Cameron Post, but where that saw strength in the characters, Boy Erased loses momentum.
Lucas feels more like a vehicle for the director (also on writing duties) to criticise and illuminate the larger horrors of the therapy rather than portray its effects on an intimate level. Hedges is absolutely terrific though, effortlessly handling the inner conflict of a child placed in an impossible situation, who wants to somehow please his parents while being happy. The performance makes his plight more engaging; watching as he endures unfathomable terror (prepare for one particularly breathless scene) and explodes after prodding at the hands of Sykes, is an intense experience.
The meatiest dynamic comes from Lucas’ relationship with his mother, a poignantly cut character from Kidman, who’s enjoying a stunning renaissance at the moment. Her complicity is difficult to forgive; but through genuine remorse, she adds a layer of tear-jerking repentance to her guilt-ridden “shame on me, too”. The real shame is that the, potentially, most resonant connection doesn’t command the same emotional response. Crowe gives a saddening, hangdog turn, but Edgerton spends too much time in other areas to really make that paternal feud flow naturally in to the material, feeling dangerously like a contrivance as the film draws to a close.
Despite these shortcomings, there are some effective flourishes. Moments of unflinching cinema are spliced in, showcasing how the devout nature of religion can make those even bound by blood do terrible things to their own. The whole thing is extremely well framed by cinematographer Eduard Graw, with no shot feeling out of place, maintaining a fairly solid colour palette, helping to place you firmly in the story. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaan’s composition hangs a heavy presence; that said, the film’s original song, Revelation, is irresistibly stirring throughout.
The message here is frank and urgent; this utterly atrocious business is disturbingly prevalent across the U.S, with over 700,000 people having been affected by gay conversion therapy. Whether it be Boy Erased, The Miseducation of Cameron Post or the writings of those like Conley; all are steps towards tearing down these god-forsaken institutions.
Edgerton solidifies his talents behind the camera, crafting solid, emotionally-charged polemic that sticks with you long after leaving the cinema.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm