DIR: Joel Edgerton • WRI: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly • PRO: Joel Edgerton, Steve Golin, Kerry Kohansky-Roberts • DOP: Eduard Grau • ED: Jay Rabinowitz • DES: Chad Keith • MUS: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans • CAST: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Joel Edgerton
Boy Erased is Joel Edgerton’s latest directorial offering since 2015’s The Gift and is based upon a memoir by Garrard Conley and his experience of conversion therapy and its oppressive impact upon his sexuality. In this cinematic retelling of Conley’s experiences, the rising talent that is Lucas Hedges plays Jared Eamons, the son of a preacher and his devout Christian wife (played by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman). Jared is pressured to enter a conversion therapy program following an incident with a male friend from college that has outed Jared to his parents. His father seeks guidance from other pastors and decides that conversion therapy is the only logical step in preventing Jared’s homosexuality. At conversion therapy, Jared is told homosexuality is “behavioural” by his therapist Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and must adapt to the practices in order to be cured of his homosexuality.
The subject matter of this film makes for unsettling viewing. Jared and the other enrollees are being taught to repress their true selves and strengthen their sense of masculinity through things like how they shake hands or how they sit. Joel Edgerton’s Victor Sykes is icily cold in his teachings and his words create a sense of fear amongst his students and he’s essentially attempting to scare their gayness away. He has a calm demeanour but Edgerton’s performance is effective in making you fear what he’ll say or what practice he’ll encourage next. The musician Flea also appears as a military-type character who is more aggressive in his teachings and wants these boys to act like ‘men’.
Lucas Hedges is phenomenal in this role and it’s disappointing that he’s been overlooked for awards. He carries the emotional arc of the film and Hedges makes you believe in Jared’s journey and sufferings through his performance. There are two sequences in the film’s final act where Jared finally releases the anger and tension from the therapy and there is a moving showdown with his father. Without this stellar performance, the film wouldn’t have the same emotional or dramatic impact. Nicole Kidman also quietly carries out a transformative performance where her character slowly realises the severity of what she as a parent is doing to her son.
The film also minimally explores the homosexual encounters Jared has to recall for his “moral inventory”. Sykes asks everyone to write about their homosexual ‘discretions’ and verbalise them in front of him and everyone else as to ridicule and admonish these encounters. This minimalist approach works in the context of the narrative as Jared is attempting to hide the memories and is afraid or reluctant to divulge these details. It also offers a glimpse of hope for Jared, especially when the film flashes back to a night with Xavier (Théodore Pellerin), and how this non-sexual moment is included in the life he wishes to accept and embrace. The colour pallette on screen becomes brighter and this is the human connection Jared longs for but is told to refuse.
Unfortunately for Boy Erased, it has to compete with Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which was released only months prior. There are similarities considering both films tackle conversion therapy and Boy Erased suffers from a case of déjà vu. For Edgerton’s Sykes, there is Akhavan’s Dr. Lydia March (a sharp-tongued Jennifer Ehle), and the plot is almost too identical in parts. It’s coincidental timing but Boy Erased is the inferior film here and the social realist elements make it less of a complete cinematic experience compared to The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Yet, it’s not a negative that these films are serving as significant retorts to conversion therapy practices.
Boy Erased is hard to watch in parts and its slow pace and non-linear structure may off-put audiences and its unsettling nature also stems from the significance that conversion therapy is still legal and practiced in multiple U.S states. Boy Erased is almost steeped in social realism and Edgerton manages to ground the film in a reality that will undoubtedly empathise with those previously involved in these practices. The muted colours from cinematographer Eduard Grau manage to prevent cinematic exaggeration and compliments the social realist aspects. It’s a film that requires investment and it’s ultimately worthwhile. Joel Edgerton, with the help of Lucas Hedges, manages to convey this importance and the contemporary and pressing subject matter Boy Erased involves.