Joel Edgerton directs and stars in this adaptation of Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir about the time he spent in gay conversion therapy. Lucas Hedges is “Jared,” a teen whose strict Christian parents (played by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) send him to a gay conversion facility led by the charismatic Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton) and a bully named Brandon (played by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers). During his time in “therapy,” Jared reflects on the events that brought him there, as his pastor dad and compliant mother wish to keep Jared under the care of Sykes but are unaware of what happens under his watch.
Boy Erased is necessarily unpleasant, though there’s a heaviness to Edgerton’s approach that makes too much of this a dreary experience. The material is so hard to watch, we don’t need somber piano music, slow motion, and a gloomy blue tint to assist the actors, who are exceptionally good. If anything, the scenes that have no music and just settle for a documentary-like approach work far better than the moments Edgerton dresses up with TV-movie gloom.
Did Edgerton really think the audience wouldn’t be impacted? There’s a scene where a member of Jared’s group is beaten by a Bible in front of (and by) his parents after breaking the rules – It’s presented in such an overdone manner, it plays like one of those ‘90s Seattle grunge music videos. Had Edgerton just kept his camera focused on the violence, cut the music, and allowed us to take in the horror, it would have been far more effective. When a director doesn’t trust his audience to be shocked by a gay teen being whacked with a Bible, you sense a more confident filmmaker should have been at the helm.
There’s an after-school-special quality to the lesser moments, which hurt the film. When Edgerton gets out of the way and just allows scenes to play in a straightforward manner, his film is undeniably powerful. When Jared belatedly lashes out against Sykes or must endure Brandon as he stalks him in a men’s room, the film’s goals are achieved.
The flashbacks to Jared’s past are a mistake, as they break away from the riveting, claustrophobic scenes of “lessons” being taught at the facility. Especially ineffective are the scenes of Jared hiding his true self in high school – we’ve seen this done before and with far more passion and immediacy. Oddly enough, the far more mainstream Love, Simon from earlier in the year managed to evoke more clearly, and with a fresher perspective, what it’s like being a closeted gay teen in the 21st century.
Edgerton’s film is admirably messy in its depiction of Jared’s troubled journey but also problematic. Jared’s two onscreen lovers are portrayed in a vaguely sinister manner and we never get to know them or much of Jared’s inner life during that period.
Hedges gives an exceptional performance, allowing an openness and unforced quality in his acting to convey the numbed horror Jared experiences. Despite Edgerton’s directorial missteps, Hedges resists making Jared a symbol, and creates a vivid, relatable character that succeeds at always maintaining our sympathy and rooting interest. Kidman is superb as Jared’s mother, whose gradual awareness of her son’s abuse is one of the film’s most satisfying subplots. Crowe is miscast and a distraction at first but he manages to find the right note for the sad concluding scenes. Edgerton is wonderful playing the persuasive, snake-like Sykes, offering a window into how anyone would be duped into believing the claims of someone who presents himself as a compassionate, educated healer. Flea has appeared in small roles before but here, in a vivid, scary character turn, his work is staggeringly effective.
The final stretch of Boy Erased (detailing Jared’s final days in the therapy sessions and the aftermath) are so powerful, they elevate the rest of the film. Edgerton is an accomplished actor whose directorial debut, the pulpy but effective 2015 thriller The Gift, showed a filmmaker in control of tone and great at encouraging challenging performances. Here, Edgerton has a shaky time with the former but a true ability with the latter. Despite its imperfections, there is much here that is worth seeing and discussing afterwards.
In May of this year, Governor David Ige signed a bill that bans gay conversion therapy in Hawai‘i. Clearly, the topic is immediate and needs to explored further in film. Boy Erased likely won’t be the last word on the subject matter but, as a portrait of religious abuse and oppression, it’s searing.
Two and a Half Stars
Rated R/115 min.
Photo courtesy IMDB