Homosexuality and transgender identity have become major hot button topics in recent years as acceptance of those who identify as such has become the social justice movement of a generation. A lot of this debate is driven by how these sexualities differ from the morals of religion and surprisingly this relationship of ideals has seldom been captured effectively on the big screen. A recently released potential awards season project looks to change that, “Boy Erased”. Based on the memoir of Gerrard Conley “Boy Erased” depicts his real-life experience in a gay conversion therapy program. Frankly it’s a powerful and overdue theme for a film and with several great actors and writer/director/producer/co-star Joel Edgerton at the helm “Boy Erased” had a lot of promise. So, is this the eye-opening look at atrocity it was meant to be or does “Boy Erased” missed the mark in tackling its real life premise? Let’s take a closer look. This is my review of “Boy Erased”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Boy Erased” tells the true story of Gerrard Conley’s experience with a gay conversation therapy program based on his 2016 memoir. Names are changed in this story though the characters are inspired by real people from Conley’s experience. Lucas Hedges plays Jared Eamons (inspired by Conley), a young gay college student who has been sent to the Love In Action gay conversion therapy program (a real program that has long been disbanded) by his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). The program is led by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) inspired by real-life former director of Love in Action John Smid. Flashbacks reveal how Eamons’ sexuality became known and the process that led to his time with Love In Action. The film depicts the despicable acts of the program and its leaders in their attempt to convert gay men and women to heterosexuality while Eamon struggles to do his parents proud while also deciding whether his homosexuality is something he even wants to try to change.
On all accounts “Boy Erased” is an incredibly performed film with every actor and actress involved giving it their all to capture the depth of their characters and the story. Lucas Hedges, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, has ANOTHER amazing performance under his belt adding to his roles in flawless masterpieces like “Mid90s”, “Manchester By the Sea”, “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”. He’s simply an absolute gem of an actor who finally gets a true leading role as the film’s version of Gerrard Conley, Jared Eamons. What makes this performance so great is that Hedges pulls it off with such a convincing casual nature that he feels incredibly human. He wants to allow the therapy to work because he wants to make his family happy, but he also doesn’t want to become someone he’s not. It’s a fantastic struggle that we see evolve over the course of the film and it’s never overplayed or downplayed. It’s a perfect balance of insecurity, confusion, and the struggle to define one’s own self that we all face but Eamons faces it in a harsh environment that tries to convince him a specific way of life is not only wrong, it’s immoral. As a viewer I couldn’t fathom how harsh such a situation could be but Hedges seems to understand it and he uses that to drive home one of his most complex and impressive performances to date.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive with Nicole Kidman as Nancy Eamons, Jared’s mother, being a big standout. Kidman’s character serves an important role providing a close loved one that begins to sympathize with Jared to understand the cruelty of the situation despite playing a part in it. She’s meant to represent how perspectives can change in the debate of homosexuality and how compromises can be made to honor one’s beliefs while also honoring those you have sworn to love. Russell Crowe plays Jared’s father who is the exact opposite, stubbornly refusing to change even for his son. Together Kidman and Crowe create a great dynamic with Lucas Hedges that shows the impact that these revelations can have on a family of devoted religious believers, further driving home the conflict between faith and sexuality that makes up the main conflict of the film.
The performance that I think isn’t getting enough love though is Joel Edgerton as Victor Sykes, the chief therapist of Love In Action who seems to be inspired by John Smid. Edgerton, who wrote, produced and directed the film, plays the main antagonist, the man who is devoted to charming the young homosexuals who have been sent to his program and reforming them. What makes this character so fascinating is on the surface he actually seems like a nice guy. It’s easy to see why people would trust him and feel empowered by him. He doesn’t feel nor present himself as the bad guy and his smooth talk and conviction to his program make him feel like someone with the best of intentions in mind. That in turn also makes him dangerous and complex to the viewer. We can understand him, but we don’t like him which, ironically enough, is how he seems to see the kids under his charge. I love this character. I love that I hate him, but I love that I feel like I understand him too.
As a story I think “Boy Erased” is a film very much overdue and it handles its subject matter with grace and respect to all involved. It doesn’t actually try in any way to vilify those against homosexuality, just the extreme program used to try and reform the homosexuals. It doesn’t necessarily tell us “you have to hate this person and like that person” and maybe that’s why characters like Edgerton’s Sykes are so complex. We’re not meant to hate them because we have to. If we hate them at all it’s because we disagree with them which is ironic because isn’t that the same approach to life we hold against them, that they dislike someone for being different? In a world where many people argue about the hypocrisy of the right and the left for speaking on free speech without allowing alternate opinions this feels like the perfect way to present this story, with no black and white morality other than the obvious mistreatment of someone to force conformity which I think everyone can agree is heinous. You can understand the frustrations of Jared’s parents and even understand why he initially wants to embrace the program. Hell, the way the film shows it it’s almost like Jared would have been all in if not for the obvious abuse he saw before his eyes. The story is amazingly complex yet so simple at the same time. It feels grounded in reality leaving you with a sense a disbelief that this really does happen even still in today’s society.
One of the best things about “Boy Erased” it how brutal it can be at times. While I had issues with how little the movie actually showed what we DO see it brutal a believable. It’s effective but not over the top and made my jaw drop by how real and terrifyingly honest it all felt. But the conversion program isn’t the only thing that had me uncomfortable. I won’t say where it fits into the story but there is a gay rape scene in this film so consider that a warning if that would make you uncomfortable. The scene is extremely well done with great buildup to the moment that makes it feel like a realistic event rather than something thrown into the film for shock value. There again lies a duality of morals that permeates this film. Evil acts aren’t just limited to the program. We see at least one homosexual perform a questionable act too and one that has overarching consequences throughout the entire story. While I do feel like “Boy Erased” left at least something to be desired I will admit that it was effectively honest in the material the filmmakers did choose to add to the narrative.
As odd as it is I feel like one of the worst aspects of “Boy Erased” is the fact that maybe it holds back too much. I’ll try to explain this the best I can because I can also appreciate the filmmakers’ and writers’ attempts to be more reserved and deliberate with their storytelling. However, I feel like there’s not enough here to truly drive home the horrible nature of these gay conversion programs. Maybe that was the point, to downplay it a bit to allow it to feel like a more grounded story that doesn’t pander to the audience’s emotions and having never read the book maybe this is how Gerrard Conley wrote the story too but to put it simply it felt like it was missing something. It felt like there was more story to tell, more detail to see, more heinous actions to behold that were excluded. It’s alright for a film to hold back for the sake of the story but “Boy Erased” actually FEELS like it’s holding something back. It feels like it’s deliberately trying to balance the positives with negatives and keep the audience from making a one-sided decision on things. Now that’s a great approach. As I already said one of my favorite aspects of the film is its lack of a clear right and wrong, but in the end I was mildly frustrated that there wasn’t more here for me to digest. There’s a lot of family drama and a few admittedly disturbing events in the program but if the goal was to demonize these programs I feel like “Boy Erased” may have defeated it’s mission by trying too hard to be grounded in simple reality. It’s brutal to be sure, but there’s just something missing that left me wanting more.
In addition, I didn’t appreciate the story structure. It was confusing because the film starts in medias (in the middle of the action) and we see Jared’s journey from point A to point B in flashbacks which can be hard to follow despite adding to the emotional weight of the story. It reminded me of last year’s “Dunkirk”, another amazing movie but one bogged down by the use of different time spans of its separate stories that had myself and others all mixed up when trying to follow the action. “Boy Erased” isn’t anywhere near that frustrating though. It simply features flashbacks of Jared’s passed mixed in with his present but there’s really nothing to help separate the two time periods which had me as a viewer confused as to whether what we were seeing was a linear narrative or not. It took me half the movie to figure out what was happening. It might be frustrating, but I’ll admit a second viewing would be a lot smoother so it’s hard to hold this against the film completely. It’s just an annoying aspect of the project that doesn’t sit well on the initial viewing if you don’t expect it, which I did not.
It might not be a popular opinion but for me “Boy Erased” isn’t absolutely perfect. I did feel like it was lacking that special something to make it memorable or as effective as I think it wants to be. But, it’s still a very good film. The acting is absolutely on point and the message is a noble one that tries to show that not everything is black and white, even when it comes to morals. The directing is good, the performances again are spectacular and it serves a purpose many films have surprisingly failed to touch on despite how significant gay and transgender rights have been in recent years. But…while I might be in a minority, I can’t escape the fact that I really do feel like there’s something to be desired here. The non-liner storytelling also confused the heck out of me and while all of this might be resolved from further viewings these reviews are supposed to be done based on my first impression. So, in the end I highly recommend this movie. “Boy Erased” has more than enough going for it to deserve attention. While I don’t think it’s a flawless film it is an important film and one that is sure to open your eyes to some harsh realities if you take the time and give it a chance.