To borrow from musician Troye Sivan’s end credits song, Boy Erased is a revelation. It is a rare message film that delivers on it without being preachy and avoids being mawkish. Though it is an uncomfortable film to watch at some points, it feels necessary. Joel Edgerton’s second directorial effort shines not just as a story of a gay teenager, but a deeply human story of compassion and acceptance. If Lucas Hedges wasn’t a star yet, he is now with his tender, powerful and moving central performance. On the cusp of stardom, Hedges has seen his plate full in the last two years earning an Oscar nomination, and starring in some of the most acclaimed films in recent memory.
Hedges anchors Boy Erased as Arkansas teenager Jared Eamons. The script, written by Edgerton, adapts the book written by Garrard Conley. Eamons is based on Conley and his experiences at a gay conversion therapy camp. Jared is seemingly normal, his father (Russell Crowe) is a preacher, his mother (Nicole Kidman) an equally devout Christian. Raised in a home where religion guides principles, Jared works at his fathers car dealership, plays basketball and has a girlfriend, a fact which his dad Marshall encourages.
Jared’s secret soon becomes apparent, he’s gay, and in a family more difficult to be gay in than most. Seeking to find answers, Jared is sent to a conversion therapy camp. Stripped of his cell phone, journal and other personal items (all used to evaluate his “sin”) he is thrust into a hateful world. Some of the films most emotionally resonant moments come within these confines. The members of this conversion class are to not cross their legs when they sit, and practice proper posture, because they are men and should behave as such.
Edgerton’s script, and his role as the camps counselor Mr. Sykes dive deep into their pasts. Sykes, played with much conviction and passion by Edgerton, attempts to use basic things to show why they are the way there. Was there a gay member of the family? Did anyone do drugs? Look at pornography? Sykes bullies and prods into the personal lives of the camp-goers by using any means to prove why they are gay. Jared even asks his mother if anyone had dealt with any of these things, to which she replies with a scoff; “our family is so normal”.
Kidman turns in some of her best work as Nancy, the overprotective mother of Jared who won’t so much as let her son put his hand out of the car window. Nancy’s progression is among the most pivotal to Jared’s growth in the film and her separate views to the closed minded outlook of her husband anchor her as the films heart and soul. “I love god, god loves me, and I love my son, for your father it’s a little more complicated”, she tells Jared. Kidman is a world-class actress and Nancy, unlike her husband, has played the part of concerned mother, before accepting Jared, something Marshall can’t quite do. In many ways, Edgerton’s crude “fake it until you make it” mantra isn’t just being used inside the conversion therapy, but as a mantra for Jared’s mother, and to a lesser extent, his father.
But ultimately, Marshall isn’t strong enough to accept his son fully. Unable to reconcile his religious beliefs with his love for his son. A tough exterior and perceived machismo hides a conflicted man underneath. Crowe gives his best work here in years. It is a welcome return to a form that earned him so much praise in the early 2000’s. Edgerton finds the conflict on every level of these characters, bringing out the insecurities and exposing them. Marshall doesn’t know what to do. It’s easier for him to not just swallow his pride and accept his son. His life is dedicated to a cause, something we’re lead to believe is ultimately bigger than the love he has for Jared.
Boy Erased is just as much about the effects of the camp as it is Jared’s story. Sykes is a manipulative bully, and one young man in particular is the subject of his rage. Britton Sear gives a spectacular performance as Cameron, a football player. Sykes insists one can’t be born a homosexual. Is one born as a football player? Cameron is told it’s a choice. He doesn’t have the ability to speak up, and his story is heartbreaking.
Edgerton keeps the focus on Jared, but the other kids in the program are introduced. All giving wonderful performances, there isn’t much back story needed to know where they come from. Sivan, who’s song Revelation ends the film with a stirring notion, has little dialogue, but Edgerton occasionally moves the camera onto him, and we know what he’s going through. Same goes for the other kids in the camp. “Play the part” Sivan’s Gary tells Jared. But for Jared, it isn’t enough to just play the part, he sees the camp for what it is, and won’t just lie down to go through like Gary.
Edgerton never attacks religion and he never takes a side. Boy Erased exists to tell a story about a normal teenager, bullied into thinking he isn’t normal. Conversion therapy, still legal in 36 states as the films ending title cards point out, hadn’t gotten its day on the big screen. With Boy Erased we get an unflinching look into the horrors of the camp. Its triumphs are found in the emotional character moments. Every single emotion is powerful, and entirely earned. Boy Erased is a surefire awards contender, but above all, a movie everyone should see.