Boy Erased

(2018) ** 1/2 R
114 min. Focus Features. Director: Joel Edgerton. Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joe Alwyn, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Cherry Jones, Flea.

/content/films/5135/1.jpgThe new drama Boy Erased—based on a true story of an American gay teen suffering through so-called “gay conversion therapy”—has plenty of important pieces in place: intriguing source material, a tested writer-director-actor-producer in Joel Edgerton (The Gift), and a cast of Oscar winners and nominees (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Lucas Hedges). Above all, it has its heart in the right place, on the side of truth, social justice, and human dignity. Because of all that, Edgerton has a head start with most viewers, but despite all that, Boy Erased never quite coalesces into the deeply moving and insightful film its pedigree seems to promise.

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) stars as Arkansas teenager Jared Eamons, who shares nearly every particular with author Garrard Conley outside of his name. As he heads off to college, this only child of Baptist parents struggles with his homosexuality. Matters only intensify when a horrifying sexual encounter sets off a chain reaction, prompting an untimely outing to father Marshall (Crowe) and mother Nancy (Kidman), and a plane ride to a faith-based program determined to harass the gay right out of the young man. That’s the God-fearing mission of Victor Sykes (Edgerton, slyly effective), who positions himself as the tough-loving Svengali of a resistant cult.

What follows is an incident-driven narrative that hits its marks in showing the absurdities and horrors of such programs while not delving very deeply into the psychology of its characters. Edgerton’s script repeatedly raises questions—about what’s going through the characters’ minds or the complexities of their struggles—that it doesn’t seem very interested in answering. The protagonist’s name change and a policy of tiptoeing when it comes to devotional disagreement evince an abundance of caution. Jared’s religious beliefs remain murky throughout, with only an opening narration to suggest that, despite his trials, he remains a believer (“I wish none of this had ever happened. But sometimes, I thank God that it did”).

Boy Erased’s ace in the hole, then, is its cast of stars, including independent gay filmmaker Xavier Dolan and gay pop star Troye Sivan (who also, along with Sigur Rós' Jónsi, contributes the Oscar-ready song “Revelation”), playing two of Jared’s peers in the program (out actor Cherry Jones puts in a cameo as a doctor). In her small but warmly tender role, Kidman seems on hand to do a good deed, while Crowe—as the conflicted preacher whose deeply held beliefs threaten his family unity—shares with Hedges the film’s most riveting scene, a climactic negotiation of conditional love. Above all, the film works to the extent that it does on the shoulders of Hedges, who works mightily to fill in the script’s gaps with his moody and occasionally explosive turn.

Earlier this year, The Miseducation of Cameron Post breathed a bit more life into a very similar scenario, although the films share the dramatic challenge of protagonists who are, in a real sense, opposed to the lifeblood of drama: change. Audiences rightly root for these characters to stand firm under intense pressure, but the drama is in the struggle. Of course, subtle changes occur with the climactic bursts of self-confidence that finally free them from oppression and confirm the truths of their identities. In addition to crucially shining a light into the shadows of these programs, where tens of thousands of LGBTQ people still languish, hopeful resolutions help to make most viewers glad these flawed but salutary films exist. In its case, Boy Erased ironically appropriates a line from one of Marshall’s sermons: “Let your light shine!”

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