In Boy Erased, director and screenwriter Joel Edgerton tackles one of the most horrific outlets for the homophobia and bigotry against LGBTQ people that has gripped certain sectors of our society for years: the conversion therapy program in which men and women who are LGBTQ are subjected to extensive “retraining,” through techniques ranging from religious instruction to outright physical brutality in order to allegedly restore them to heterosexuality.
Of course, this kind of “treatment” is not only nonsense but has been shown to be incredibly harmful to its victims: one’s sexual orientation is not a “choice” or a mental disorder but inherent to one’s very self and identity, and attempts to bury, twist, or distort that can lead to lasting psychological damage and even, in some tragic cases, suicide.
That is the backdrop against which Boy Erased–which was inspired by Garrard Conley’s memoir about his own experiences with the atrocities of conversion therapy–plays out. Lucas Hedges (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) plays Jared Eamons, son of Baptist pastor Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Jared’s own suppressed sexuality comes to the fore when he goes away to college, although it’s partially brought out as prelude to an ugly sexual assault, further muddying his already confused feelings.
After admitting to himself and his parents that he’s gay, Jared is pressured by his father and other Baptist leaders in their Arkansas community to enter a conversion therapy camp under the seemingly kind tutelage of “ex-gay” head therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton). As Jared spends his 12 days in the program, however, and gets to know the other “patients” and staff members there (especially a cruel “therapist” played with barely checked sadism by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea), the true hideous nature of the camp is revealed. He also begins to understand that there is nothing wrong with either him or his sexuality, a dawning realization shared by at least one of his loving but wrong-headed parents.
On just his second directorial effort (following the 2015 psychological thriller The Gift), Edgerton utilizes a restrained style that keeps the film from becoming too melodramatic yet also rarely lets it reach an emotional boil. Ironically, Boy Erased could use a little more of the former as it veers toward the pedestrian for large chunks of its running time. The sense of mounting tension and, yes, terror that should emanate from Jared’s increasingly frightening stay in the camp is defused by flashbacks (a device too many filmmakers are using these days to the same effect, it seems). At the same time, the awful fate in store for one of Jared’s fellow inmates- seems preordained, because that it what they are ultimately treated as: prisoners.
Despite its faults, one has to applaud Boy Erased for confronting such a barbaric practice even as it does so in an Oscar-friendly format. Much of the film’s strength lies with its cast, starting with Lucas Hedges in a complex role that plays fully to his sensitivity and emotional honesty. The script gives him some fantastic material to navigate, such as a scene in which he tenderly refuses his ostensible girlfriend’s advances without giving away his secret. The pain and psychological aftermath of the rape in college is written all over his face, as is his hurt and disappointment when he seeks solace from his parents.
Kidman and Crowe each get meaty scenes to play, Kidman’s near the end as her own doubts about the camp are finally given full vent. Meanwhile, an understated Crowe and the director go out of their way to present Marshall as a man who tries and fails to reconcile his love for his son with his staunchly held beliefs, while not painting Marshall as an out-and-out heavy. The climactic scene in which father and son have the most honest talk of their lives together is one of the film’s most moving moments.
It’s hard to say if ramping up the intensity, as suggested earlier, would make Boy Erased a better film or plant it more squarely in the tradition of the lurid prison drama, a genre near which it occasionally skates by virtue of the events that unfold and Eduard Grau’s claustrophobic cinematography. It’s nevertheless a movie to be applauded and seen, even if it never quite approximates the howl of outrage that every decent human being should want to unleash upon witnessing such a stupid, vicious practice.
Boy Erased is out in theaters this Friday, Nov. 2.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye
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