Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, Boy Erased is one of a plethora of films based on real stories this year. The film doesn’t always make the best of its conversion therapy scenes, but the family and personal drama is what will keep you riveted and engaged.
Jared (Lucas Hedges) is a college freshman when he admits to being gay. He’s lived a very sheltered life, a conservative life, what with his dad, Marshall (Russell Crowe), being a church pastor and all. Jared seems close to his mom, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), and dad and there’s love there, but Jared is very much conflicted about his sexuality at first. After a misunderstanding following a sexual assault, he reveals the truth to his parents. His father’s first order of business is to consult his fellow clergymen and take action, sending Jared to conversion therapy where Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) attempts to wash Jared clean of his “sins.”
Boy Erased’s power comes not from the daily trauma in conversion therapy, but from the family drama. The conversion therapy aspect of the film is occasionally clinical, lacking in overall momentum. It portrays the atrocities of conversion therapy, how LGBTQ kids are treated, and how it’s detrimental to one’s psyche, but a lot of it is step-by-step storytelling that isn’t executed as effectively as the family aspect.
Lucas Hedges puts in a nuanced performance that works on many levels. All of his pain, fear, and anguish are written all over his face and it’s clear that he’s most affected by his parents sending him to conversion therapy. Jared understands that his parents are scared, but he’s also angry with them, most especially his father, for carrying on like he’s diseased instead of choosing to understand him as a person. It’s heartbreaking to watch the rift this creates and the stress it causes Jared as he tries to navigate his new reality.
The rest of the supporting cast is excellent. Nicole Kidman’s Nancy is full of self doubt and fear. She doesn’t know quite what to make of her son’s predicament, but she’s also torn about the decision to send him to conversion therapy. Of the two parents, she’s much more lenient and kind in her treatment of her son despite the circumstances and Kidman, of course, conveys that in her portrayal. Russell Crowe’s Marshall is a walking example of what denial and holding society/religion above the love of a son looks like. He holds in a lot of what he feels, much like his son, but he’s adamant about one thing and it’s keeping Jared in conversion therapy for as long as necessary. His struggle with accepting his son is portrayed as realistic and heartbreaking all at once.
Joel Edgerton is a triple threat, adding acting to his film responsibilities. As Victor, he balances brashness with attempted kindness. On the surface, Victor seems supportive and helpful, but it doesn’t take very long to witness the cruelty in his actions and treatment of the kids. He’s the kind of “nice” guy you might come across on a daily basis, but one whose thoughts aren’t as pure as his intentions and public persona may seem.
Boy Erased certainly strikes a chord and aims to make an impact on both of the issues it tackles in the film and it does manage to be a realistic portrayal, especially in the behaviors and reactions of the characters. It grounds itself in Jared’s want and need to be accepted by his parents and his journey towards realizing that he is not, in fact, damaged. What’s damaged is the way in which society and religion view him. The writing really nails this turning point and epiphany and its impact resonates throughout the rest of the film. While the conversion therapy scenes and the flashbacks don’t always flow, the scenes between Jared and his parents work to elevate the drama and conflict in a meaningful way.
Boy Erased certainly strikes a chord and aims to make an impact on both of the issues it tackles in the film and it does manage to be a realistic portrayal.