Boy Erased is Joel Edgerton’s triple-duty follow-up to 2015’s psychological thriller The Gift — again writing, directing and co-starring, here for the adaptation of a memoir by Garrard Conley (renamed for the screen as Jared Eamons and played by ubiquitous everyteen Lucas Hedges).
The film follows this only child of Ford-selling, Bible-thumping Baptist minister Marshall (Russell Crowe, embracing his fatness) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman), a Real Housewife of Arkansas. When Jared comes out to his parents as gay on a visit home from college, their response is to place him in Love in Action — a gay conversion therapy program led by Victor Sykes (Edgerton).
Love in Action is a sterile hell of search-and-seizure whirlwinds, aggressive posturing, secrecy about the therapy process and furrowed brows for furtive behavior from both orderlies and the observed. Sykes’ blue shirts and loud ties are the only pops of color allowed inside Love in Action, his charges clad in white button-downs akin to downtrodden Bible salesmen — a cheap, itchy canvas on which he sees fit to paint corrective masterpieces. “Nobody’s judging,” Sykes insists even though he knows that, in the way he sees God, that’s precisely what’s happening. And when Sykes asks that those who participate in the process express a spiritual love for their fellow man, he does so with a sergeant’s irritated invocation and not a servant’s gentle grace.
Edgerton’s camera follows long, soul-shattering pans across the body language of Jared and his commiserate crew — given vivid, if brief, life from Britton Sear, Jesse LaTourette, actor / director Xavier Dolan and singer / actor Troye Sivan. We feel Sykes’ rhetoric clamp on them like shackles and stocks, herding, marginalizing and, in some cases, breaking them. But as Jared goes through a 12-day intake — after which Sykes will determine the length and intensity of his ongoing treatment — he comes to consider that maybe he is not the one who needs to yield.
In his best turn yet, Hedges lets us see Jared emerge from a hushed and haunted uncertainty into a young man confident in his conviction to challenge others rather than capitulate to their whims. Plus, we see the ways in which religious shaming has dealt Jared irreparable wounds well before he comes out to his parents. Alongside him, the old-pro Oscar winners wrestle with leviathans of love for their God and their son, coming to terms that a draw will be the best outcome. Kidman nails the moment that Nancy finds the limit of tactics that hurt to help and Crowe lets Marshall’s largeness loom in physically, and emotionally, intimidating ways.
The performances are great. It’s the structure that’s ill-fitting. Edgerton flashes back from Love in Action to snippets from Jared’s past. While it’s a far sight better than the hopelessly unstuck-in-time Beautiful Boy, the choice both diminishes the urgency of the therapy scenes and, perhaps subconsciously, minimizes the authenticity of Jared’s sexual orientation.
It is tremendously important to see tenderness in Jared’s romantic past as counterweight to all this tragedy; however, the non-chronological moment at which we see it feels like a way to unnecessarily float the question of whether Jared is, or is not, confused about his choices. And although Edgerton can be commended for getting out of the way, there is a downside to not seeing Sykes outside of his more extreme moments. It leads to a gotcha epilogue in a film that, when not empathetically raw, is at least explanatory in ways that aren’t so exploitative. Plus, it’s almost certain to play as a laugh-line moment — much the way it did for the preview crowd — and rides a line of hand-waving some of the worst things done in the name of conversion therapy.
While these moments are a disappointing concession of safety to a crowd that perhaps most needs hard edges to strike them, they ultimately do little to upend the power of a film that, in its own folded-hands way, is of a piece with The Gift. There are no screws to turn, but Edgerton establishes similarly inescapable, high-velocity conflicts between words we put into the world and beliefs to which we privately cling. It’s a story of victimization and vindication deftly rooted in coded languages and the ways in which people perpetuate or break cycles of abuse. An already-difficult scene of sexual assault adds a further dimension of discomfort with its introduction of religious power dynamics. (And among Edgerton’s many slight visual touches, there are plenty of “domestic violence” branches on a genogram of the Eamons’ family tree.)
In some ways Boy Erased plays it a tad too safe and sanitary. But it’s still a generously acted story of faith, identity and the survival instincts inherent to both — and one that reinforces the power of respectful honesty to recognize some transgressions are simply not ours to bear.