BOY ERASED

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Joel Edgerton

Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Flea, Joe Alwyn, Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, William Ngo.

Lucas Hedges and Troye Sivan in Boy Erased (2018)This is the second film to hit our screens in as many months to deal with the controversial subject of gay conversion therapy and the potential damage it can cause among the vulnerable and confused teens it aims to help. The first was Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance award winning drama The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, which starred Chloe Grace Moretz as a teen sent to a gay conversion camp. That film screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival earlier this year.

Boy Erased is based on the 2016 book written by LGBTI advocate Garrard Conley, Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family, and is based on his own personal experiences of having been sent to a gay conversion therapy centre in Memphis in 2003. Here Conley becomes the closeted teen Jared Eamons (played by Lucas Hedges, from Manchester By The Sea, etc) who is outed by former boyfriend after a brief gay romance at college turned sour. His father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a conservative Baptist minister who runs a local car dealership, while his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is deeply religious. When Jared’s homosexuality is exposed by the vindictive Henry (Joe Alwyn), his concerned parents force him to attend the Love Is Action gay conversion therapy program run by the manipulative and slightly creepy Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film).

The therapy is times a humiliating and painful experience as students are virtually bullied into denouncing their homosexuality and even becoming bitter and angered at their parents. The therapy also includes role playing, maintaining an intimate diary, sharing their secrets in group meetings, and in some cases physical punishment. Many of these teens are vulnerable and confused and end up hurting themselves when they are made to feel ashamed of who they are. Jared eventually resists the treatment and stands up to Victor and his staff. He begins to come to terms with his own sexuality, thus reclaiming much of his own sense of identity, but also forcing his loving parents to come to terms with this.

Boy Erased is based on actual events and is all the more disturbing because of this. Obviously, Conley still bears the emotional scars of what he went through. Boy Erased takes us behind the walls of a religiously inclined therapy centre whose mission is to turn these sexually confused boys into real men and renounce their homosexuality. The pseudoscience behind the therapy has largely been denounced by medical professionals as unethical and harmful. But the film also serves to remind us that Christianity is supposed to be about tolerance, acceptance and compassion. The film delivers a timely and topical message and it deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

To his credit, Edgerton is sympathetic and directs with restraint, and he brings sensitivity and balance to the material, and the film will again focus debate on this issue. This is his sophomore feature as a director, following the edgy psychological thriller The Gift (2015), and he makes some interesting choices and shows an assurance behind the camera. As an actor himself Edgerton knows how to elicit subtle, strong and nuanced performances from his cast. His low-key approach is echoed in the minimalist score from Danny Bansi and Saunder Juriaani, who also scored The Gift. There is also some great production design from Chad Keith (a regular collaborator with Jeff Nichols on Midnight Special, etc) that depicts the Love In Action centre as a cold, sterile and depressing environment. Eduard Grau’s sepia toned cinematography also contributes to the somewhat bleak, melancholy and downbeat mood of the film.

The always impressive Hedges has been building up a fine resume playing emotionally vulnerable and confused teenagers, and here he delivers another strong, thoughtful and complex performance. This is the first time that Crowe and Kidman have shared the screen, which adds some intriguing star power to this otherwise small, low budget feature. Kidman delivers empathy and compassion to her wonderfully nuanced and subtle performance as Nancy who begins to suspect that there is something off kilter about the centre, while a heavyset Crowe, cast largely against type, has a strong and commanding presence as Jared’s conservative father. There is plenty of palpable tension between Marshall and Jared, and the two actors create some dramatic sparks in their shared scenes.

Edgerton himself turns in a nuanced and enigmatic performance as Victor, who pushes his conversion therapy beliefs so strongly that one begins to suspect that beneath the surface he himself is a self-loathing gay man. Rock musician Flea, from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, plays Victor’s much more direct and volatile assistant Brandon, a former convict. Xavier Dolan and singer Troye Sivan play some of the other teens attending the therapy sessions.

The film unfolds with a series of lengthy flashback sequences that reveal two key encounters in Jared’s sexual awakening, and also the reactions of his parents. However, both Marshall and Nancy come across as sympathetic characters who do what they do out of love for Jared rather than with malicious intent. But it is this non-linear structure that ultimately undermines the power of the film.

★★★☆

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