By Karen Gordon
Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 autobiography Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family, is a sober glimpse behind the curtain of Christian Gay Conversion centers,
When college freshman Jared (Lucas Hedges) is forced to come out to his parents, he knows the news isn’t going to be welcome. None of this is happening on his timetable. He’s still coming to terms with his sexuality, when his Baptist preacher father (Russell Crowe) and his mother (Nicole Kidman) are tipped off that their only son has been with men and confront him. It would be easy to lie his way out of the situation. But Jared, a serious young man who seems constitutionally unable to lie, answers honestly.
And for that honestly, he’s sent to a Christian Conversion center ironically called “Love In Action” for what he believes is a 12-day course aimed at curing him of his homosexuality through God.
For the love of his parents and in the hopes of living a good Christian life, Jared is willing to give the place a shot.
At first the course doesn’t really ask much of the students, and Jared, who is a quiet guy, is able to hang back and watch. But soon he’s being asked to do assignments that make no sense, and is uncomfortable about what some of his fellow students are being put through.
They’re routinely embarrassed and humiliated, and some subjected to bizarre abuse. Jared is growing increasingly alarmed and wants out. But getting out of the clutches of this organization is another matter.
The adaptation was written and directed by Australian actor Joel Edgerton. He’s assembled a top-flight cast, starting with the Oscar nominated Hedges as Jared, Crowe and Kidman, (who wears the worst mom wardrobe of her — or anyone’s — career).
Edgerton plays Victor Sykes who runs the school and directs the daily classes, a mash up of faux psychology and anti-gay rhetoric from a fundamentalist perspective and encounter-group style exercises, all designed to weaponized faith, and to break down the student’s resistance through humiliation.
Movies like this often tend toward sensationalism to make their point, but Edgerton has gone in the opposite direction.
It's a respectful choice. But it’s one that robs the movie of much of its emotional impact. There’s a vast difference between underplaying and over-the-top drama. And one wishes that Edgerton had edged the drama up few notches. There are times when awful things are happening to one of the participants. We get it intellectually, but the movie often soft-pedals the real visceral impact and that’s a shame.
At the center of the film, Jared, is a quiet, thoughtful person, often more of an observer than a participant. And so, while his story is incredibly compelling, it’s hard to build drama around him.
As a result, the movie works best in small intimate scenes particularly between Jared and each of his parents. Both Kidman and Crowe do fine, subtle work. And once again Lucas Hedges, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work in 2016’s Manchester By The Sea, proves himself to be one of the finest young actors out there.
Boy Erased isn’t the powerhouse that it could have been. But the movie has heart and soul. And, given that Gay Conversion Therapy centers still exist, the story at the core of the film is an important one.
Boy Erased. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. Starring Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. Opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, Friday, November 9.