For all the social progress made over the last decade or two, especially in terms of marriage equality, we still have a long way to go when it comes to admitting that being part of the LGBTQ community is not a choice. “Gay conversion therapy” not only exists, but is given to (or forced upon) hundreds of American teenagers every year, who are told they must “pray the gay away” and change their base selves. Arkansas native Garrard Conley was one of those teenagers, and his life story serves as the basis for writer/director Joel Edgerton’s new drama Boy Erased. And while the film features a terrific lead performance from Lucas Hedges and certainly covers important territory, it has a bit of trouble settling on its focus as the story progresses.
Hedges plays Jared Eamons in the film, the son of a Baptist pastor in a small Arkansas town who comes out to his parents at the age of 19. While his parents don’t berate or abuse him, his father seeks council from other men in his church who have experience with this particular “issue.” It’s at this point that Jared’s father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) decide it’s best to send Jared to a gay conversion program called Love in Action, which is led by a forceful, domineering “therapist” named Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton).
Boy Erased jumps back and forth in time, contextualizing the events of the program with the moments from Jared’s past that led to him finally coming out to his parents. Obviously growing up in a devout Baptist family puts plenty of pressure on Jared, who at first seems either willing or eager to confess his “sin” and change. But as the program progresses, as Victor’s strange methods drone on, and as Jared strikes cautious friendships with other boys in the program, Jared begins to rethink this whole “fake it ‘til you make it” idea.
Hedges once again proves he’s one of the most talented young actors working today with a quiet, internal performance. The diversity of range he’s displayed in Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, and now this is astounding, and it’s easy to see why every filmmaker is dying to work with him. The issue with Jared in the film is not in Hedges’ performance, however, but in Edgerton’s script. As the son of a Baptist preacher, Jared has been religious all his life, and confronting his homosexuality is a difficult step. Unfortunately, we don’t really see or hear much about Jared’s personal beliefs, or how he aims to reconcile his sexuality with the teachings that his father preaches at the pulpit. It’s inferred a bit here and there, but that’s not enough when such a significant battle is being waged inside the character.
The film feels most comfortable when it’s painting a picture of what these gay conversion therapy camps are like, and there are certain scenes with Edgerton’s character that are downright disturbing. But again, everything is played so internally that a lot of the time, we’re left to infer what it is that Jared is thinking or feeling in any given moment, especially as it relates to the religion in which he was raised. Moreover, Edgerton and cinematographer Eduard Grau opt to shoot the film with very low light, presumably to evoke feelings of despair, but at times the image is so dark you can’t even see the performers’ faces. That’s an issue.
But Boy Erased isn’t without its bright spots, and indeed even despite the issues I have with it, I think it’s a fine film and it could very well speak to a very specific experience. Crowe and Kidman are superb as refreshingly restrained parents. There are no scenes of Crowe beating or screaming at his son; only quiet disappointment and denial. That makes it all the more crushing, and Crowe is wonderfully pensive here. Then Kidman brings a sensitive complexity to the role of the devoted wife and mother who finds herself strained between her husband’s wishes and her son’s feelings.
The film does end on a high note though, and ultimately the story Edgerton tells is an uplifting one. Indeed, the harrowing experience of being in gay conversion therapy is certainly worthy of being explored, and Edgerton does a serviceable job at bringing Jared’s experience to life. But Boy Erased lacks key insight into Jared’s thought process and feelings that would have really taken the film to another level. As is, it’s a fine if a bit staid piece of storytelling.
Boy Erased opens in theaters on November 2nd.