Boy Erased's earnestness bolsters its performances
The most moving aspect of Boy Erased is also the most challenging. This true story of a young man’s experience at a gay conversion therapy institute is one that pulls no punches in its indictment of a truly cruel practice, but at the same time, it takes great pains to try and empathize with not just the misguided folks who put their children into such a program, but also the monstrously lost folks who run it. Some may see the heart of this film as a weakness, especially at a time where we often view anything but seething condemnation as advocacy, but the fact of the matter is that the story is a true one, and that the call to empathy at its heart is both genuine and proven.
Based on the memoirs of Garrard Conley, Boy Erased likely takes some liberties with the story, most notably in changing the names of the characters, but there’s no denying the genuineness on display. Joel Edgerton, who adapted the memoir and directed, makes what could have easily been aggressive Oscar bait much more accessible. This broad approach not only makes a difficult subject matter welcoming to an audience, but it also makes the horrors suffered by our protagonist and his cohorts at the hands of the conversion facility that much more insidious.
Two stories are told in tandem. Our film opens with Garrard stand-in Jared (Lucas Hedges) and his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) entering the facility on the very first day of “therapy” sessions. It’s clear at the outset that the program is shrouded in secrecy. Jared’s personal belongings are taken from him, and Nancy is forbidden from going past the check-in counter. Equally clear is Jared’s reticent enthusiasm. He’s scared, but he’s also prepared to give it his all to try and find a cure for his “condition.” You see, he’s the son of a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe), and there’s much more on the line here than just image and reputation. This is Jared’s chance, as he and his parents see it, to save his soul from sin.
We move back in time to the end of Jared’s high school days. He’s a generally happy kid. He’s well-liked amongst his peers, including his girlfriend, and he’s getting ready to embark on his first semester of college. Dad has gifted him a car and a blessing, and it’s made clear that when the time comes, Jared will be inheriting his father’s successful car dealership. He’s pretty much got it made. But after a grueling experience with an equally confused (and incredibly violent) colleague, Jared is outed to his parents, neither of whom are prepared to deal with what they see as a death knell to their idyllic existence.
The two narratives, pre-camp and mid-camp ultimately merge, placing the viewer into a purposefully frustrating situation. Here’s a kid who any person with a lick of sense knows is as normal as they come, being told by people who claim to love him that he is somehow defective. The family is so loving outside of their shortsightedness regarding sexuality, that Jared believes it himself, and it’s his arc from self-rejection to denial to acceptance that fuels the bulk of the film.
Hedges, as has become standard, is incredible. The small ways in which he goes big are exciting. He’s not aiming for declarative monologuing, nor does he ever feel aware of the audience. Yet, it’s not an understated performance either. The same can be said for both Crowe and Kidman as well. The former is long past his svelte Maximus days, and has since had to rely on his considerable skill as a characterization machine now that his front page star power needs to be bolstered by genuine craft (not that the man ever phoned it in, but GQ material he is no longer). It’s a difficult role. Father Conley loves his son, but he also loves God - a God who, in his eyes, has provided a grand life for he and his loved ones. Being a pinnacle of the local faith community does not mix well with a son who, by his interpretation of God’s word, does not fit in with the established paradigm. Yet Conley is not a bad man by intent so much as he’s a decent man with all of the wrong information and a spotty relationship with uncontrollable change. The film makes it clear that this is the case, and it’s Crowe who really brings this challenging duality to life.
Kidman, however, steals the entire film. Nancy loves God as well, but is challenged to be her son’s biggest advocate in a world that just isn’t willing to bend on something so trivial as sexual identity. She knows this from her experience as the wife of a preacher. She’s not typically listened to in her world. She is expected to go with the flow, regardless of how it makes her feel, because that’s “just the way it is.” Watching Nancy find strength through her son’s difficulties is a task that any performer would relish taking a stab at, but few could nail so brilliantly as Kidman does here. She doesn’t just shine while on screen either. Even during scenes without her presence, she is nonetheless felt. Ya know, like a mom.
Rounding out the cast are Edgerton himself as Father Sykes, the “cured” homosexual running the facility, and Flea as the strong-armed orderly who is tasked with relating his past struggles with drugs and crime to the “choices” being made by the youngsters in his “care.”
I am just now realizing how many terms I’ve had to put into quotes to illustrate the lies that self-proclaimed “decent people” tell themselves and others while hiding from a truth that challenges their narrative. Then again, this is precisely what Boy Erased aims to do. As I said before this isn’t a condemnation of unassailable evil. Not by a long shot. This is a study of how quickly evil can manifest at the heart of dogmatic belief, even when the intent isn’t malevolent — and how no matter what you want to believe, the truth simply can’t be denied, at least not in any way that’s compatible with true kindness.
Overall, this sophomore effort from Edgerton tells an urgent story well, and in a way that may even open the eyes of folks still resistant to its message. Sure, there are some small issues (the potential gut punch of a third act development is all but glossed over), but they pale in comparison to the functionality of the film. Boy Erased entertains while putting forth its moral lessons in a way that isn’t didactic, giving it an uncanny superpower in a world so frequently devoid of empathy: the potential to change minds rather than just dismissing them.
Boy Erased opens in Philly theaters today.