In Brief: A story that must be told needs a harder edge.
Boy Erased is based on the memoir of Garrard Conley. In 2004, at age 19 — more or less forced by his Christian parents — Conley checked into the Love in Action facility in Memphis, Tennessee. The purpose? Conversion therapy.
For those not familiar, it’s a program designed to turn a homosexual person back into a heterosexual. Sounds laughable but it’s true, such programs exist.
The film casts Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons. His sainted mother, Nancy is done by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe is Eamons’ car dealership-owing, fundamentalist Christian minister father.
Eamons isn’t sure about sex with his girlfriend. He’s actually not sure about sex at all. They break up and he heads off to college. Eamons ogles a few guys but nothing more. What is eventually clear to Eamons is that he likes men. As the plot spins on, someone outs the kid to his parents. At first the boy denies he’s gay but later admits to lusting a bit after the same sex.
With pressure applied, and not wanting to disappoint his parents, it’s off to Love in Action and conversion therapy. Heading the so-called therapy is the film’s writer-director, Joel Edgerton (an acting Golden Globe nom for Loving). He’s all business and puts his charges through their let’s all be men and women — and just men and women — paces.
Eamons is subject to rants of pray, pray, pray, ask for forgiveness, push to be free and beg God to remove this curse. He also has to endure the insults of a manly man from a guy wonderfully done by Red Hot Chili Peppers founder, Flea.
Boy Erased is tough to watch but I wanted more. Conley’s book is 352-pages. It must be a bit deeper and more detailed than this movie. Edgerton seems to just touch here and there on the highlights of Conley’s experience. All of this had to be a bit more detailed and more complicated than presented in this film.
The plus? Edgerton gets exceptional performances from some very talented actors. Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) plays Eamons as a fish-out-of-water. He’s totally confused about sex and about being gay. He tries very hard to be heterosexual but just can’t quite get there.
What makes it worse is the boy can’t really communicate with his militant father. Any real discussion of what’s happening in his life begins and ends with the boy being wrong.
Eamons does have a special relationship with his mom. This is where Hedges and an absolutely fabulous Kidman anchor the film. His experience at the Love in Action facility is head-spinning. That spinning keeps spinning him back to his mother.
She gets him but can’t admit to getting him. Marriage and militant husband get in the way of her doing the right thing by her son. It is here that Kidman shines. She doesn’t have a lot to say but quietly gives a riveting experience.
You feel the pain she feels for her boy and his internal conflict. There is a sense she knows this is a hopeless exercise. Her hope against hope is that somehow, someway, it all turns out right.
Crowe plays the elder Eamons as a hulking middle-aged man terrified about what he’s learned about his son. He’s torn between loving him and loving the God he serves, a God he thinks condemns his son to eternal torment for being himself.
All through the film you keep hoping the guy will get it but deep down you know he won’t. This, too, is a positive in Edgerton’s film. In this he doesn’t give an inch and rejects the happy Hollywood ending.
Edgerton is a very good writer and director. His first trip into directing was the riveting thriller The Gift. While I’d like to see more of him behind the camera in the future, he’s also a terrific actor. Victor Sykes is the villain you expect. Edgerton plays him as hard as nails but also as a shallow human being who is totally convinced of the sacredness of his mission. Being right tops everything. And let us define “everything” as compassion, love and acceptance.
Sadly, estimates are that over 700,000 people have been forced to undergo conversion therapy in this country. Psychologists and geneticists say the therapy is pretty much useless since most homosexuality is hormone driven and causes irreversible changes in the brain. Gay people are — well — born gay.
It also needs to be noted here that not all Christians are like Sykes and his ilk. Not everyone in the faith think it’s important to brainwash and psychologically torture other human beings to make them enter into “right thinking.”
Conley’s message — and Edgerton’s gripping screenplay and taut storytelling — is that we need to let people be who they are and let them sort out their sexuality for themselves. That’s love. The loved that’s preached and practiced by these groups is not love.
Not even close.
Director: Joel Edgerton
Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Britton Sear, Flea, Joe Alwyn, David Joesph Craig
Rated R for mature themes and language. Great performances anchor a story that needs told. Give this a 4 on the Average Joe Movie 0 to 5 scale.
5 to 4 1/2: Must see on the big screen.
4 to 3 1/2: Good film, see it if it’s your type of movie.
3 to 2 1/2: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 to 1: Don’t bother.
0:Speaks for itself.
Catch Gary Wolcott Friday afternoons at 4:50 on KXL’s Afternoon News.
Gary has been KXL’s movie critic since 2014. A lifelong fan of film, he’s been a film critic in radio, television and newspaper for 28-years. Wolcott catches a couple of hundred movies a year and he sees a great many of them so you don’t have to.
He is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
Got a movie suggestion or comment? Click here to email him.