Boy Erased (2018)

22 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are still “Conversion Therapy” programs being practiced in a select few of the United States. As this piece of information was dropped on me and the audience before the closing credits of the new film “Boy Erased” sent us farewell, I felt a bigger lump in my throat than I did during the scene in which our main character undergoes mental abuse at one of these “Conversion Therapy” programs. That this is still happening in quite a few areas makes me feel for those suffering at the hands of people who probably mean well but for the most part resort to bullying tactics in their attempts at “helping” and “curing” homosexuals.

“Boy Erased” is based on a memoir of the same name written by Garrard Conley, who underwent one of these programs himself and wrote articles that exposed the truth about the harmful aspects of the process. The idea is to “convert” someone who is gay or bisexual and make them heterosexuals, and “Boy Erased” tells the compelling story of one man who challenged the idea by becoming stronger and more well-balanced, both in terms of his sexuality and his individuality.

Jared (Conley’s counterpart, played by Lucas Hedges) has a great life in a middle-class Arkansas community. He has loving parents (Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman), he’s artistic, and people seem to really like him. But things change when he tells his parents that he often thinks about men and might be gay. His mother, Nancy, is heartbroken, while his father, Marshall, a devoted Baptist pastor, feels like his entire universe has been shattered. Marshall gently informs his son that he cannot be gay and live under his same roof. So, Jared agrees to have his parents direct him to a Christian “conversion camp” in Memphis, TN called “Love in Action,” which is dedicated to reprogram men and women who are gay…or who think they’re gay, as the program leader and staff believe it’s a choice to be gay.

Jared isn’t sure of what the program is all about, nor does the shadiness of the day clinic seem to faze him (or his mother, who should be more concerned that nobody will let her inside the premises) upon first arriving—no cellphones are allowed, his journal entries are to be monitored, and no one is to mention anything about what happens within the program. He does it because he wants his father’s love and respect, and, like most Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, doesn’t want to be seen as an “abomination” in the eyes of God. At first, everything seems fine. The man who runs it, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed this film), seems nice and willing to help him and his fellow “converters.” But over time, he becomes disturbed by Sykes’ methods being forced upon everyone to ensure the conversion is effective. Physical and mental bullying is at hand in the name of helping these people, and it doesn’t take too long for enough to be enough.

I get that many of these “Conversion Therapy” programs do get positive results from people who go through with it. But there are clients who take so much abuse from the people in charge of it before they become even more confused or enraged or both—some of them even kill themselves as a result… This is an aggressive practice that can’t be taken lightly; that Southern White Baptists feel the need to “change” people’s sexual orientation because of their strong beliefs that homosexuality strays people further away from God. (It’s this kind of homophobia that have made fundamentalist religions more fearful of the consequences of being gay…and also the same kind of homophobia that makes gay Christians fearful of coming out to their loved ones and being true to themselves.) While it’s not as active as it was in the last three decades, it’s still unfortunately operational. “Boy Erased” shines a light on not just the idea but also the attitude in general—and it’s very effective in doing so.

One of the reasons for its effectiveness is that the characters aren’t portrayed as black-and-white good guys & bad guys. That’s especially true of Marshall and Sykes. These two could have been written and portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures; instead, they’re portrayed as real people who don’t know the answers, think they’re doing the right thing, and want to find ways to help. You get the sense that Sykes has been through this sort of thing before and is now determined (which is a nice way of saying he’s “fanatical”) to help others. His methods are undoubtedly questionable, as he runs the place as some would run a drug rehab clinic or a boot camp, but that’s what makes his story (while not the key focus) all the more heartbreaking. He’s not a monster; he just doesn’t know how to reach certain people (to say the absolute least).

(Side-note: Please stay and study the texts that reveal updates on how the real-life story played out. What we learn about Sykes makes this character even more interesting.)

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Jared and Marshall, as Jared reveals something to his father that throws his world out of alignment and Marshall has to accept it or lose the son he still loves. He’s a thoughtful, old-fashioned religious man who of course doesn’t understand what his son is going through. But that doesn’t mean he has lost his love for his son. (This is another strength of the film: showing us how Jared’s coming-out not only affects Jared but Jared’s loved ones as well.)

As hard-hitting and gripping as the material is (and it’s VERY hard-hitting and gripping), what makes it all even stronger is the acting that carries it through. Lucas Hedges, one of today’s best young actors (following great work in a role somewhat similar to this one in “Lady Bird” last year), makes it hard for audiences not to feel anything for this kid when he’s happy or sad or upset or angry (all four important emotions to capture for a role like this one). Nicole Kidman delivers some of her finest work as Jared’s mother, who loves her son and knows when he’s sad or hurt that it’s time to step in and help him. Joel Edgerton wrote and directed the film and also knows not to make his character of Sykes into anything less than a bully with an agenda. But the film’s absolute best performance comes from Russell Crowe as Marshall. This is a man whose world is rocked by an important revelation and is forced to confront what he sees as a nearly impossible choice. You can practically feel his heart breaking in certain scenes, particularly in the final act of the film, and Crowe delivers some of his best work as an actor.

When adapting Conley’s book, Edgerton knew not to go for over-the-top melodrama and give us simple answers for these people who are all going through something internally and externally. It simply illustrates a series of injustices and ultimately shows that where there is courage and hopefulness, there is also tolerance and acceptance. As understated as “Boy Erased” may be, I doubt its impact will leave me anytime soon. This is one of the best films of the year.

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