A note from the editor: Salt Lake Film Review stands with the LGBTQ community and against the practice of conversion therapy, which currently goes unregulated in thirty-six states. We urge all readers to become more aware of this issue and to urge their state representatives to take action on it.
Boy Erased is the second film this calendar year about a teenager forced into gay conversion therapy by ultra-conservative, religious family members. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is based on a young adult novel, and Boy Erased, based on a memoir by Garrard Conley. Unfortunately, this is an extremely timely story that American audiences need to see. Both films are tremendously important and deserve a place in the Oscar conversation this year, however, I must say this one gets the edge.
Jared (Lucas Hedges) is the son of a Baptist pastor and a hairdresser (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) in the deep South. Jared is a happy, well-adjusted young man who is discovering who he is. And he increasingly cannot deny the fact that he is gay. His religious family can’t believe what they are hearing and force him to take part in a fundamentalist Christian gay conversion therapy program called Love In Action. The film follows the real-life horrors behind the doors of this place at the hands of preacher Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and the people Jared encounters along the way.
This is difficult, bordering on traumatic viewing, but it’s absolutely essential. It’s a story that needs and demands to be told, especially at this very point in time. It’s writer/director Joel Edgerton’s second film, and he’s proven himself to have a gift for tone and mood, with 2015’s The Gift, a thriller where he also played a supporting role. His performance is chilling, and he’s deft behind the camera. This is a film that’s trying to say something important, and I can always appreciate when a filmmaker is committed to a bigger, positive mission.
Lucas Hedges is better than I’ve ever seen him. Since Manchester By the Sea, which earned him an Oscar nomination, he’s popped up elsewhere. Until this movie, he hadn’t really blown me away yet. He makes Jared’s isolation and uncertainty of himself feel very authentic, and he’s giving a masterful performance. You feel terrified for him every step of the character’s story, even as he’s finding himself, you worry for him. Hedges understands this isn’t a defining story of this particular journey, and it’s much bigger than just this movie.
Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe play the parents, Marshall and Nancy. He owns a car dealership that he plans to leave to Jared one day. She’s a hairdresser, and Kidman is again, delivering dramatic monologues in a bad wig. Both of these characters could come off as self-righteous monsters, and perhaps the most surprising thing about this movie is that it’s a little more nuanced than that. The parents’ actions (Marshall’s, in particular,) sometimes come off as soullessly cruel, but there are several scenes where you realize the emotions these characters are feeling are too hard to summarize. Everyone feels like a human being.
Pop singer Troye Sivan and Xavier Dolan have nice supporting roles as attendees of the conversion camp, both characters exploring different ways of coping with the horrors there. Jon (Dolan) is brainwashed into thinking he really can change through this program, while Gary (Sivan) is simply ‘playing the part.’ As we see, people take to this program differently, and it’s all sad and terrifying.
The film tells us in the end titles, 77,000 minors have been subjected to conversion therapy, and it is still legal and practiced in 37 states. This is happening everywhere. Jared could be anybody. This is a quasi-legitimized form of torture. It teaches children that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and they will go to hell unless they are ‘fixed.’ This is petrifying, and it’s an American reality we’re all living in. Boy Erased aims to shine a light on this horrifying truth. Despite how Hollywood this production is, it never feels anything but genuine. It’s difficult, but essential viewing, and I hope audiences take away the very important message it offers.