When I wrote about Joel Edgerton's directorial debut The Gift three years ago, I ended by noting that he was a director to watch. A successful actor who had already appeared in some 60 films and penned a handful of screenplays, Edgerton proved himself to be a deft, sensitive artist behind the camera, turning out a stylish, thoughtful, and fully absorbing thriller whose near-greatness was predicated largely on its ability to constantly surprise you, not with whip-snap plot turns, but with slow-boil revelations that made you immediately want to go back and rewatch the film.
Now, with Boy Erased, Edgerton has delivered on that promise with an emotionally powerful, deeply humane adaptation of Garrard Conley's 2016 memoir about his time spent in gay conversion therapy in the early 2000s. Garrard is here renamed Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), an Arkansas teenager coming to grips with his sexuality against pressures both general (Middle American culture and expectations of budding masculinity) and specific (his conservative religious family). When Jared, as a first-semester college freshman, finally comes out to his father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), a pastor, and his well-manicured, fall-in-line wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman), things do not go well. Marshall, after summoning counsel with other pastors, informs Jared that there is no room under his roof for a homosexual son and that his only choices are to go his own way or to submit to gay conversion therapy. Jared says he wants to change, and we sense that he means it, if only because his recognition of how his sexuality turns him into an outcast in relation to everything he has known in his 19-year-old life. He literally has no context to understand his same-sex attraction other than its being wrong and being in need of remedy.
Jared's background is told via a succession of flashbacks that are triggered by various events that take place during his two-week stint with Love in Action, the gay conversion institution overseen by John Smid (Joel Edgerton), a pastor and counselor who, it is intimated, is himself a gay-to-straight convert. Staying at night in a hotel room with his mother, who tries desperately to keep things upbeat, Jared spends his days with a group of other gay teens, submitting themselves to a program that is a combination militaristic boot camp (the designated trainer in all things traditionally masculine is played by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) and psychotherapy immersion, much of which involves the kids filling out detailed "Genograms" that outline all the problems in their family tree (alcoholism, criminality, abortion, homosexuality, etc.). Smid's approach hinges entirely on the idea that same-sex attraction is a direct product of problematic family relations, and his favorite technique is having the kids sit down and unleash their anger at an empty chair representing his father. It's an empty technique, which is part of the film's obvious agenda: to dramatize and therefore debunk the idea that gays and lesbians can be "cured" of their sexual orientation, a highly controversial practice that has no research support, but is still legal for kids under 18 in 36 states.
In some ways, though, that is the least interesting and engaging aspect of Boy Erased. Yes, many of the sequences at Love in Action are devastating to watch, especially as you find yourself paying close attention to the various teens and trying to discern which ones are just playing the role until they can escape, which ones are truly convinced they can change, and which ones are in a state of shell-shocked trauma from which they may never emerge. Most of the violence is psychological, as the teens are subjected to a hideous Frankenstein's monster of military training techniques and psychological mumbo-jumbo that is stitched together with little more than outdated prejudices and misguided assumptions (at one point Jared notes that that the program notebook they have to carry around is rife with spelling errors).
What is decidedly more interesting and engaging is the way Edgerton refuses to create any outright villains. It would be all too easy for the film to simplistically demonize those around Jared who are determined to force him to change because they fear what he really is, but Boy Erased approaches them all with a sympathetic touch that does not absolve them, but rather grapples with their inherent complexity. There are points at which the film leans a little too heavily on Red State stereotypes and assumptions about conservative Christianity, which in the Trump Era has become a kind of all-purpose boogeyman for progressives who can't help but point out the glaring hypocrisies. Thankfully, the film largely avoids caricatures by painting Marshall and Nancy as three-dimensional characters who are at various times locked into their rigid world views and at other times open to new perspectives (the cinematography by Eduard Grau, who also shot The Gift, is sometimes at odds with this, as the scenes in the Eamons's home, especially the kitchen, are unrelievedly gloomy for little apparent reason).
Nancy, in particular, experiences a profound shift in her worldview, not just about Jared's sexuality, but about her own role in her family and marriage. A perfectly put-together pastor's wife, she initially pooh-poohs the idea that there could be any skeletons in the family closet, yet eventually realizes that sending Jared to Love in Action is a profound mistake, as are the assumptions underlying that choice. Marshall is more complicated; his steadfast religious views would seem to leave no room for accepting his son as a homosexual, and yet there are glimmers of hope, not that he will suddenly and miraculously change his perspective, but rather that he will see through the labels. Even Smid, who is the most obvious potential villain as the primary inflictor of damage, is eventually revealed to be more pathetic than anything-a sheep in wolf's clothing. The Gift was an absorbing thriller because it eventually revealed that we were watching a story about not one, but two villains, each of whom had his own reasons for destroying the other. Boy Erased is an absorbing and moving drama because it eventually reveals that it has no villains, just people struggling to understand and live in the world.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Focus Features
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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