4 out of 5 stars.
To many of you reading this, something like gay conversion therapy is completely unfathomable. But to others, who view homosexuality as a choice, or a sickness, it is a very viable option. It’s those others who are at the center of “Boy Erased,” a drama written and directed by Joel Edgerton based on the memoir by Garrard Conley.
The film follows Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the teenage son of a Baptist priest (Marshall, played by Russell Crowe) and a hairdresser (Nancy, played by Nicole Kidman) in small-town Arkansas. The film alternates between flashbacks of Jared slowly realizing he may be gay, up until he is outed to his parents, and the present, where Jared is attending a gay conversion program his father enrolled him in. Jared is a good kid: he does well in school, plays sports, loves his family, and appears to love his faith. He goes along with the program knowing that his participation in it will help heal his relationship with his family, but as the abuse inflicted on the program’s participants by its director Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton) becomes increasingly apparent, Jared finally starts to lash out.
With “Boy Erased,” Edgerton cements his place not just as a great actor, but as a great writer and director as well. This is the second feature directed by Edgerton, and he commands top-notch performances from his actors, as well as tells a story that is sometimes hard to watch, but seeks to move those who are affected by these issues, and change the minds of those who are still on the wrong side of things. The story doesn’t outright condemn religion, but it does raise questions as to how faith can be a barrier in matters like accepting someone’s sexual orientation. Moreover, the story is about accepting oneself and one’s family, no matter what; after all, the only reason Jared agrees to go to the therapy in the first place is so that he doesn’t lose his family, who initially aren’t accepting of him being gay. When Jared finally breaks free and stands up for himself, it’s a relief.
It helps the telling of this story further that the performances across the board are fantastic. Hedges gives a stirring lead performance that further confirms his status as one of the finest young actors working today. Kidman is especially moving as Jared’s more sympathetic mother, while Crowe commands every scene he’s in as a man whose faith stands in the way of his family. Edgerton is quietly scary as Sykes, while the cast also includes Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, Britton Sear, and Jesse LaTourette as other participants in the conversion program, and Joe Alwyn and Theodore Pellerin as the two young men who play a part in Jared realizing his sexuality.
But while the story is very strong in the quieter moments with Jared and between Jared and his family, there’s something lacking. It doesn’t have as much punch as expected, despite a shocking rape scene and some disturbing scenes as part of the so-called therapy. The stakes just don’t seem very high, and that’s likely because we don’t really see the effects these events have on those involved in them. And yes, this film is about family relationships and not exclusively about gay conversion therapy, but surely the abuse has devastating effects on the mental health of the participants? Sadly, we don’t get to know the others in the program well enough to say, and even Jared appears to come out of everything relatively unscathed. Still, we root for him. We root for him to get out of the program and accept himself regardless of what others believe. We root for him to stand up to those who would put him down. And, thanks to the raw, emotional performances from the cast, we root for acceptance and reconciliation from those people who, in this moment, still believe otherwise.
Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated R.