Movie Review: Drama – Boy Erased
Directed by Joel Edgerton
Screenplay by Joel Edgerton
Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Joel Edgerton
Slow Motion Emotion
The most pointed moment in Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s film version of Garrard Conley’s 2016 account of his experience with gay conversion therapy, occurs in the title cards at the end of the film. That’s where we learn that Victor Sykes (an alias for real life minister, John Smid), the aggressive anti-gay counselor who relentlessly badgers his young gay subjects into self-denial, now lives with his husband as an openly gay man. The idea that reparation therapy, like many manifestations of religion-based homophobia, derives much of its energy from self-denying gay men who hope to convert vulnerable gay men in order to satiate their own self-denial, is one that most gay men and women will instantly recognize.
For people like Victor, failing to convert their charges means failing with their own conversion. They seek proof for themselves that the therapy works. But in Boy Erased it’s just an afterthought. The film is more concerned with showing the cruelty of pressuring human beings into denying their own sexual identity, a goal it achieves with some success. Still, it would have been nice to see the story told through these two different perspectives. Both Smid and Conley were victims of homophobia.
Unfortunately, the film limits its narrative to the source material, diminishing both its scope and dramatic potential. As the film opens, Eighteen-year-old Jared (Lucas Hedges) has just entered the program at Love In Action, where he begins a bizarre assessment program to see just how gay he actually is. (?) The students are instructed to create a family tree with letters next to family members indicating transgressions against God. “A for alcoholic, “H” for homosexual, etc. When his mother informs him that an uncle was always a bit on the feminine side, Jared adds an “H” next to his place on the chart.
The ridiculous logic of this and other ideas put forth by programs like Love in Action are often laughable, but to the children of the devoutly religious it’s not a joke. It can mean being ejected from the family unit and being vilified by your peers. Jared and his fellow “transgressors” are informed that their homosexuality is the result of bad parenting and are sworn to keep the contents of the program secret. (What happens in Self-Hatred Club stays in Self-Hatred Club).
In a bit of narrative confusion, we flash back to Jared’s experiences before entering Love in Action. There he coexists lovingly with his Baptist minister father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his faithful mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Jared believes in God and loves his parents. The Conley’s function as a stable Christian family, a welcome change of pace for a movie about a gay man. There are never any doubts cast on this, no dark secrets kept hidden behind closed doors, no attempts at demonizing the Conley’s and their faith. The Conley’s want nothing more than for their son to become a strong Christian man able to withstand the temptations of a corrupt world.
By superficial appearances, Jared fits the stereotype of a young heterosexual man; he’s an athlete and has a girlfriend. But he soon breaks up with her after a night alone in his car when, during a passionate moment, the girl’s hands make a move toward his crotch. Jared pulls her hand away, suggesting that they should wait. But we already know the real reason he’s reluctant. Later, in college, Jared finds a friend and running partner in the handsome Henry (Joe Alwyn) and the two spend the night in separate bunks in Henry’s dorm. In the middle of the night Henry’s bed springs start a’squeakin’ and the naïve Jared assumes his friend can’t sleep. Henry slithers down from the top bunk, standing over Jared in what we expect will be a steamy seduction and passionate sex scene, but to our shock, Henry instead forces himself on top of Jared and rapes him.
Distraught and confused, Jared returns home and tries to put the assault behind him. But later his father is disrupted from his reading by a call from the fearful and anonymous Henry who outs Jared, hoping to shame him into keeping quiet. Jared denies his own sexuality, but later, after a romantic, but sex-free flirtation with an art student, confesses his attraction to his horrified parents. Behaving as if Jared had nailed Jesus to the cross himself, Marshall consults with two fellow preachers, and the three of them, Nancy, and Jared agree that Jared will enter conversion therapy.
The questionable psychology and cruel humiliation of the conversion scenes to come, while sad, aren’t particularly shocking or disturbing. In real life, of course, they would be, but Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay doesn’t get deep enough into any of the victim’s heads to give these scenes the necessary impact. These children might as well be Oliver Twist getting cracked on the knuckles by Headmaster or being denied the proper serving of gruel, it’s so routine.
And it all leads predictably, to tragedy and a big moment of truth for both mother and son, Jared finally embracing his identity and Nancy asserting her love for her son and rejecting both the program’s questionable practices and in turn, her blind obedience to both her husband and the Christian patriarchy he symbolizes. Nancy remains a Christian, but she refuses to turn against her son. It’s a moment of empowerment for both Jared and his mother and it’s undeniably moving.
The film’s refusal to condemn Christianity en masse is admirable. The reparation therapists are bad people not because they’re Christians, but because they serve their own self-interests, not Jared’s or those of the other hapless individuals caught up in their efforts to deny their own yearnings. On the other hand, there’s a strange homophobic air about the film in that we never see much evidence of Jared’s actual sexual desire other than the occasional subtle glance.
There’s no sex in the film, no real indications of lust. One assumes, given his upbringing, that Jared is a virgin, as was, presumably the real Conley, so it’s not a surprise that he doesn’t have sex. But we never experience the depth of his desires. Does he masturbate? Is he a top? A bottom? We know so little that there’s nothing at stake, nothing to lose if he does become “erased.” We only see him in a barely tactile moment of affection with another man and it’s made clear that no sex has transpired. And the fact that the only time we see him have any sexual contact at all is when he’s raped by Henry, adds to the homophobic aura.
The film is so concerned with not offending its audience that it neuters Jared’s sexuality. It’s as if it were kowtowing to homophobes who insist they don’t have a problem with gay people as long as they don’t “rub it in their face,” which amounts to little more than saying, “I don’t care if your gay as long as I don’t have to see any evidence of it.” Granted the presentation of these events may follow the actual events of Conley’s experiences, but there are subtle implications in a two-hour movie that can’t be clarified as easily as they would in a book. And, as always, I would maintain that the dramatic integrity of a film takes precedence over strict adherence to the source material.
The three leads are smartly, if safely cast. As the forlorn Jared, Hedges, with his all-American good looks and brooding puppy dog brows, has a knack for playing soft-spoken, introverted teens, conveying awkward self-doubt with a mere lowering of the brow or a barely tweaked half-smile. He’s an easy protagonist to throw your sympathy behind. As his father, Crowe is stuck with the bland role of the implacable Christian father and seems wasted in a blandly written confrontation scene at the end.
But Kidman, despite her popularity as a gossip magazine favorite, is and always been an extraordinary actress, capable of disappearing completely into a role. (Witness the trailer for her new film Destroyer, in which she is so completely transformed as to be utterly unrecognizable). There are mannerisms and nuances to her performance that authentically capture the demure middle-class Christian woman she portrays without demeaning or caricaturizing her.
But it’s the more adventurous, smaller casting choices that bring the most delight. One of my favorite bits is by Red Hot Chili Peppers Bassist Flea, who plays the snarling, mean-faced counselor who teaches the boys the proper manly body language. (It’s apparently all about triangles, that most solid of shapes). There’s a sly humor in the casting of the impish, tattoo painted, sexual sprite whose outrageous antics off and on the stage are the stuff of rock and roll legend.
And there’s a delicious touch of irony in the casting of openly gay actress Cherry Jones as the most rational character in the movie, a doctor who reluctantly tests Jared’s blood at his father’s request, knowing full well there’s nothing wrong with the boy. “I’m a Christian,” she tells Jared, “but I’ve also been to medical school.” It’s a nothing role for the Tony winning theater icon, but she’s so damn good you wish she could be in the whole movie.
Edgerton, a fine veteran of numerous films, most notably as the male lead in the interracial romance, Loving, and in this film, as Victor, directs with an almost strangling good taste. The film is so low key, so middle class proper, so damned polite, that it muffles its own dramatic potential. With its subtle score, low key color palate and mistaken belief that excessive use of slow motion somehow equals drama, Boy Erased never transcends the kind of respectable, socially aware drama one might have expected from Stanley Kramer 50 years ago if the subject matter hadn’t been taboo.
While gay audiences will no doubt shed a tear over the damage inflicted on Jared and Love In Action’s other young victims, the film seems best suited to convincing doubting Christians and conservatives of the injustice of conversion therapy. But will that audience even see a movie about gay conversion therapy made by (gasp) Hollywood’s liberal elite? Edgerton is ultimately preaching to the choir, gays and liberals who will shake their heads in agreement at every unsurprising turn. Boy Erased is well meaning, well made, and for those unaware of what really happens in gay conversion therapy, educational, but as a drama it’s merely average.