Looking Back at 2010s Films: Boy Erased (2018)

4 Nov

By Tanner Smith

SPOILERS!!!

Ugh! “Boy Erased” didn’t make my decade-end top 20 either? Seriously??

I loved this film when I first saw it, and I’ve seen it about four times since–each time, it’s gotten an emotional reaction out of me…the first time made me cry.

The moment in Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased” that made me cry–midway through the film, Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is a Christian conversion camper who is already uneasy about the “methods” being used to “cure” homosexual teenage boys…and it’s this point when he realizes he needs to get out of there: when one of his fellow campers is repeatedly, physically beaten with a Bible…not just by the therapists but by his own father. My heart wept for the poor kid.

Three cinematic moments from 2018 legitimately made me cry–the funeral discussion in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s drunken arson attempt in “Wildlife,” Jared’s revelation in “Boy Erased.”

This moment is followed by Jared standing up to Victor Sykes (Edgerton), who is trying to force a reason for hatred out of Jared. Jared can’t take it anymore–he won’t lie to “save” himself and he doesn’t hate his father; he challenges Sykes. He storms out of the room and yells as he exits: “I hate YOU! But what does that help?!” And that’s when he decides he’s getting out of there.

He tried as best as he could, for his father, a small-town Arkansas pastor played by Russell Crowe. His father gave him an ultimatum–go to the camp and be “cured” of his homosexuality, or be kicked out of the family. Jared either wants to believe something is wrong with him or simply doesn’t want to be shunned by his father (or both), but he chooses to undergo conversion therapy. His loving mother (Nicole Kidman) is rather submissive of her husband’s deal but wants to help her son any way she can. When she finally understands that something is wrong well into the program, she doesn’t back down in helping Jared break free. Soon, his father realizes the harm that these conversion therapy programs cause but isn’t ready to admit it to himself or to his family.

That leads to the emotionally powerful ending, in which four years have passed and Jared hasn’t been on speaking terms with his father. He can’t take it anymore–after writing an article that exposes the wrongdoings of the program, he comes back home to confront his father. He doesn’t simply want him to hold himself accountable for his actions–he wants him to love him as his son. And here’s a brilliant move in the telling of this story, which results in some of Russell Crowe’s finest moments as a dramatic actor–the father, having held on to his strict religious beliefs probably his whole life, isn’t fully accepting of his son’s sexual identity but also isn’t ready to lose him. The two reconcile with somewhat of an understanding, on a beautifully ambiguous note.

I’ve just described three of many powerful scenes in “Boy Erased,” a film that asks (or rather, demands) families to accept and love their LGBT children. And it does so tenderly and tactfully…which is why I’m frankly surprised and a bit disheartened that it didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Don’t get me wrong–it didn’t necessarily bomb; it was able to make its budget back. And it was well-reviewed (mildly positive, from the reviews I’ve read, but still positive) by critics. And it was nominated for some accolades (Hedges was nominated for a Golden Globe; Nicole Kidman for a Critic’s Choice Award; among others). Watching it again today (before writing this post), I can’t help but feel like it deserved more. More people should have talked about this film; awards shows should have recognized the script (which was adapted from a real-life memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley); Russell Crowe’s superb performance should’ve gotten more attention; and what about the Oscars?

Well, I’m not going to forget this film. It’s too good for that. And it was only the second directorial outing for Joel Edgerton, whose previous film, the psychological thriller The Gift, definitely impressed me. Edgerton knows and loves movies and he knows what it takes to get audiences debating and discussing over particular issues such as bullying and identity. (Edgerton has also gone on-record stating that he himself was a bully, so it’s interesting to see him as someone seeking redemption.)

I mentioned in my original review that Edgerton’s character of Victor Sykes, the therapy group leader, becomes more interesting in hindsight. Why did I say that? Because of an ending caption that outs him as gay–after leaving the group, he lives in New York City with his husband. This film did such a great job of showing the characters as realistic people with more-or-less moral/ethical dilemmas that even the ones who seemed like caricatures can be looked at in different ways. Why do they do what they do? How were they brought up? What is their thought process? Among many other questions that probably don’t even need answering. I can name so many bad “Oscar-bait” melodramas that have answers as simple as “they’re just jerks.”

But with “Boy Erased,” these characters are as complicated as real-life people.

NOTE: And speaking of “real-life people,” my parents know the real Jared Eamons (Garrard Conley) and his parents. And they have both pointed out the one fact-vs-fiction flaw they just wouldn’t let go: that Garrard’s mother (Martha Conley) isn’t nearly as tall as Nicole Kidman.

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