“I wish none of this had ever happened, but sometimes I thank God it did,” the main character tells us in the opening minutes of Boy Erased, the partially biographical drama about “gay-conversion therapy.” And with that oxymoronic comment setting the tone, writer-director-actor Joel Edgerton paints his slightly predictable but nevertheless meaningful portrait of a depraved belief system.
Boy Erased is the second major movie of 2018 to tackle this topic, after The Miseducation of Cameron Post, but it’s significantly different, and better. While the former focused on the friendships formed at a “camp” designed to turn gay people straight, Boy Erased wisely places its emphasis on the trauma these institutions cause while offering an intimate look at the subject’s relationship with his family.
Cinematic wunderkind Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) plays Jared, a preacher’s son from Arkansas, the “land of opportunity.” That state motto goes painfully unrealized, however, after a traumatic incident at college forces Jared to reveal his homosexuality to his parents and, by doing so, prompts his fundamentalist father to send Jared to the preposterously named Love in Action center, at which counselors warn participants, “Nobody is to discuss the therapy outside these walls.”<[>Though Jared is 18 and can vamoose anytime, there are repercussions for bailing, most notably alienation from his family. In this respect, the film is just as much about free will as the moral crimes of the counselors. Yet the distress they cause is front and center, such as when the center’s director (Edgerton) tells the young men and women in his care, “God will not love you the way that you are.” Ultimately, though, Jared uses his experience to help others.
Boy Erased is slow to build and often confusing, as it alternates between Jared’s college environment and his time in “therapy.” Until one acclimates to this ill-advised use of flashbacks, it can be tough to follow. It also is overscored, never completely trusting its own quiet power. But the mature, subtle performances slowly burn into your conscience. Never reduced to caricatures, Jared, his mom (Nicole Kidman) and his father (Russell Crowe) are well rounded, relatable and profoundly human. Though Kidman offers another in her seemingly endless series of revelatory supporting turns (featuring an accurate yet never distracting dialect), Crowe is most memorable. Giving perhaps his best performance since 2005’s Cinderella Man, he is the epitome of a conflicted soul. Edgerton is excellent too, though his character never moves completely past the bad-guy stereotype and, therefore, remains at arm’s length emotionally.
Good films about this topic are overdue, and those who suffered similar abuse will likely react to this movie in much the same way as Catholic priests' victims did to Spotlight. Boy Erased, which is based on the 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley (the real-life Jared), isn’t nearly as good as the 2015 best-picture winner, but I did shed a tear. That emotional reaction was likely due to the performances of Hedges and Crowe, but it could have also been caused by the vicarious nature of cinema. Outside of the multiplex, I’m neither gay nor religious. But for a moment, in the dark, I was. And I’m wiser for it.