A film review by Craig J. Koban December 19, 2018

BOY ERASED jjj

2018, R, 114 mins.

 

Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons  /  Nicole Kidman as Nancy Eamons  /  Russell Crowe as Marshall Eamons  /  Joel Edgerton as Victor Sykes  /  Xavier Dolan as Jon  /  Troye Sivan as Gary  /  Joy Jacobson as Brandy Vidler

Written and directed by Joel Edgerton  /  Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley

 

 

 

BOY ERASED is based on the 2016 memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, who is the only child of a Baptist pastor that, when he was attending college at 19-years-old, was outed as homosexual to his deeply religious parents.  Being absolutely petrified with the notion of being openly gay within his fundamentalist family, Garrard was given a choice by his father: Be forever disowned by his family (because gayness is a big no-no in the Baptist religion) or attend a gay conversion therapy institution in hopes of being "cured".  Facing near insurmountable pressure, Garrard enrolled in such a camp and his memoir - and this new film - are a devastating chronicle of the emotional and physical abuse he experienced while there. 

Garrard's memoir is explicitly designed to open the outside world's eyes to the types of irreparable harm that gay conversion therapy camps pose on so many countless and closeted homosexual men and women.  If anything, they exist in a naive bubble of believing that homosexuality is a choice that can be cured, and in their pursuit of fixing these teens they do more actual harm than any good.  Directed with an understated economy and great sensitivity to all parties presented by Joel Edgerton (the underrated Australian actor that's also developing into a fine filmmaker as well), BOY ERASED emerges as a damning analysis of the repellent horrors that reside in these therapy clinics, which are shockingly still a daily fact of life in nearly 40 American states today.  By the end of the film - which proved to me to be both deeply moving and deeply unsettling in equal parts - I was left with the sickening notion that this is nearly 40 states too many. 

 

 

The film also reinforces young Lucas Hedges (so tremendous in films like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and LADY BIRD) as one of the finest emerging actors from his generation, and here he plays Jared, introduced in the story as a somewhat introverted and troubled young man that's being sent to the aforementioned gay conversation camp by his father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman) a successful car dealer/pastor and hairdresser respectively.  Jared has lived a live of staunch spiritualism and dedication to the teachings of the Bible, which doesn't support gayness in any way, leaving his future with his family in question.  He checks into the "Love in Action" gay conversion assessment program, headed up its chief "therapist" Victor Sykes (a quietly chilling Edgerton), whose philosophy on homosexuality is that it's a morally wrong lifestyle choice born out of poor decision making and broken parenting.  The 9-5 grind of this camp also includes the kids giving up their cell phones and possessions that they came in with, not to mention that they have to suspiciously not mention any details about the therapy to anyone on the outside, including their parents. 

Initially, Jared seems to be a willing participant to partake in this clinic, partially because he sheepishly believes that his being gay can be mended, but mostly, I think, because he's too afraid to be banished from his family for a lifetime.  At first, the camp itself seems somewhat inviting with a positive atmosphere, but the more time Jared spends there the more dreadful his day-to-day life inside of it becomes.  Within no time, the fairly intelligent Jared begins to see beyond-obvious problems with Sykes' ideology, that being gay is a choice, not unlike, for example, being a hockey player.  In his mind, no one is born gay.  You can train yourself to purge such impure sexual urges, which Sykes - and most Southern white Baptists around Jared - believe is against God's will and teachings.  Love in Action equates homosexuality to sin, and their whole "treatment" model (sarcastic quotes intentional) is using what could be best described as invasive interrogation techniques that includes emotional and physical abuse to "shame" the gayness out of subjects.  Jared starts to see this wretched program for what it is, which appears vague on end dates and could potentially mean a permanent stay for him if he doesn't submit to their teachings. 

Let's get something out of the way right now: gay conversion camps are, well, pure evil.  Their treatment has no basis in medical fact, not to mention that therapists like Sykes - who's challenged by one character late in the film about his credentials - seem to have no specific training or education whatsoever that should allow for him to come within fifty feet of troubled youth.  His therapy choices are simple, yet deplorable: condemn kids into re-converting back to heterosexuality.  Part of what makes BOY ERASED so unnerving is in showing the vile manipulation that Sykes and his cohorts utilize to essentially humiliate their targets back on the "straight" track.  The scary repercussions for these young people is the notion driven into them that God and their family will despise them forever if they remain gay.  What's equally scary to witness is seeing Jared - who was outed via a truly horrendous altercation with a fellow college student that was concerned about Jared outing him - lose any semblance of a honest sense of self and identity; his essence is "erased" through the gay conversion camp's meddling.  The truth is this - Jared is gay, and no amount of shaming it out of him would ever change that. 

The performance quartet at the heart of BOY ERASED is uniformly stellar, with Hedges - in a truly brave and deeply committed performance laced with layered nuance - is bravura in showing Jared as a terribly conflicted man being forced to make a ghastly choice between living life truthfully as homosexual or living life dishonestly as a faux-hetero male to appease his parents and religion.  Hedges is so effortlessly natural in the film that there's not one false dramatic beat in his work.  Contrasting him is the equally understated work by Edgerton as the morally and ethically reprehensible gay conversion camp head that will stop at absolutely nothing to ensure that his patients are cleansed of homosexuality once and for all.  In a lesser actor's hands, Sykes could have been played as an over-the-top religious fanatic, but he's all the more chillingly unhinged for the relative soft-spoken manner that Edgerton has as an actor.   

The other two triumphant performances come from Crowe and Kidman, who respectively have two of the trickiest roles in the film.  Kidman is reliably remarkable playing her kind hearted, but aggressively religious mother and wife who eventually has to give way to feelings of maternal support for her son when she begins to smell something awfully afoul with the conversion camp.  And Crowe himself has not been this powerfully reserved and compelling in a role in an awfully long time as Jared's father, who traverses some very difficult emotional terrain between being an ultra conservative man of God that shows absolute disgust for Jared's homosexuality and a fairly noble minded chap that honestly wants the best for his son, even if that means confronting his own spirituality in the process.  Crowe's final scene in the film playing opposite of Hedges - during which time both of their characters anguish over trying to achieve some level of reconciliation - is among the most brutally sincere and effective pieces of acting in Crowe's career. 

One other thing that really helps elevate BOY ERASED is that it's not a one sided attack on faith and religion.  It rightfully portrays gay conversion camps as the backwards minded horror shows that they are, but Edgerton never succumbs to making Jared's parents one-note villainous caricatures.  Nancy and Marshall put Jared in this clinic not because they are truly vile human beings, but mostly because they love their son and are hopelessly naive enough to think that he can be cured out of homosexuality.  Their choice was more misguided than cruel.  And the ultimate inspirational message at the core of BOY ERASED is that even die-hard Baptists like these parents - that have subscribed to every word of the Bible as the only truth and rules to live by - slowly, but surely begin to see the errors of their ways and their faith.  These are good people that made a dumb decision when it came to their son's well being, but the fact that they come to grips with it and, by the end of the film, try to learn from it and move forward in a positive spirit of understanding shows that there's hope for the rest of us when it comes to not demonizing homosexuality as a sin.  And that's what ultimately makes BOY ERASED both an endlessly moving and important film; it's a very fair in showing people of faith acting at their worst and best in service of God.  

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