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Review: Boy Erased

November 10, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, which documented his experience of being sent to a program meant to “fix him” for being gay, Boy Erased is an emotional and at times harrowing drama about the horrors of conversion therapy that provides a powerful showcase for Lucas Hedges.

The film focuses on Jared Eamons (Hedges), a young gay man who feels forced to stay in the closet due to the religious beliefs of his family, but gets outed at college after becoming the victim of a serious sexual assault, and is sent by his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) to a gay conversion camp run by the “ex-gay” councillor Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton).

The program blames being gay on problems in the family, and the participants are subjected to invasive psychological exams and different therapy methods built around a system of punishments and rewards meant to change their same-sex attraction. Although his well-meaning but misguided mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) initially goes along with it, she starts to realize that maybe her son doesn’t need to be “cured,” and becomes a fierce champion for him.

Directed by Joel Edgerton, making his second feature following his twisty stalker thriller The Gift, Boy Erased smartly keeps the focus on its actors first and foremost, and is built around another moving and nuanced performance from Hedges. With his deeply sensitive eyes, the exceptionally expressive young actor becomes a powerful conduit for the audience, taking us on this emotional journey right alongside his character. There are obvious similarities to the closeted teen that he portrayed in Lady Bird, and he is also able to approach the role from a personal place, with Hedges himself recently coming out as being sexually attracted to both women and men.

Kidman does strong supporting work, offering a touching portrayal of a mother learning to accept that the unconditional love she will always have for her son includes accepting him for who he is, delivering several powerhouse scenes throughout the film. Crowe has his share of moving scenes as well, taking on the challenging role of a pastor and father who seems sincere in his belief that being gay is a sin yet still wants the best for his son, despite being unable to fully accept him and ultimately making choices that are very damaging to him.

Edgerton nails his portrayal of a charismatic, salesman-type leader who walks the fine line between assertive and abusive, with something deeper going on beneath the surface that causes us to question if he even believes what he is preaching, or if he has just gotten caught up in the act and is still trying to convince himself that he has been “cured” of his own homosexuality. The film also features memorable supporting roles for Xavier Dolan as a member of the program who desperately wants the therapy to work, as well as Troye Sivan as an openly gay artist that Jared meets at college who helps him start to open up. Sivan also performs the moving original song “Revelation” on the film’s soundtrack.

The film depicts the emotional toll that conversion therapy has upon the participants, and the often abusive methods that are used, including a genuinely disturbing scene that shows a mock funeral for one of the clients. While Boy Erased is obviously critical of conversion therapy, and challenges the outdated belief that homosexuality is an “illness” in need of treatment, which continues to fuel enrolment in these programs, it is also careful not to be overly critical of religion itself, showing the intentions of Jared’s parents as more misguided than truly bad. They honestly view being gay as a problem that needs to be fixed, and this idea – not their belief in God – is what needs to be changed.

If I had one criticism of Boy Erased, it would be that the film is at times assembled in a way that makes it feel more like a collection of scenes, giving us the feeling that the overall finished product is very good where it could have been great. But even if the film itself never quite adds up to more than the sum of its parts, there are still a lot of very powerful scenes here, and Boy Erased is a moving, well acted and very topical story that can do a lot of good just by being out in the world. Edgerton has said that he wanted to make the film to help end conversion therapy once and for all, and that’s a very noble goal indeed.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 12, 2018 10:30 am

    Reblogged this on Art by Nicole Corrado and commented:
    According to the book Neurotribes by Steve Silberman, ABA “therapy” was historically utilized for the same nefarious purpose.

    Like

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