3.5 out of 4 stars
I want to use this review to preach. My colleague “Jay” urged me to resist, but I don’t know if I can.
Every year at film festivals and especially around Oscar season, there’s bound to be one or more LGBTQ-themed movies vying for awards. In 2017, “Call Me By Your Name” was a Best Picture nominee and, a year earlier, “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for the category. Director and “Boy Erased” co-star Joel Edgerton’s film looks to follow in those footsteps.
So I should get this out of the way right now: I am a heterosexual Christian and “Boy Erased” is VERY discomfiting in a way that neither of those others were. It’s not because it’s a little difficult to relate because of my sexual orientation, but more that it’s also an unflattering look at how my faith has been weaponized against LGBTQ people even when intended to help them, as in the case of this film’s subject: conversion therapy, a process that promises to “cure” homosexuality. And “Boy Erased” is an unflinching look at one young man’s experience.
Like those other films, this one is a coming-of-age story. Set in the mid-2000s and based on Gerrard Conely’s memoir of the same name, “Boy Erased” follows 18-year-old Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) who is sent to a center by his Baptist preacher father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and mom and pastor’s wife, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), after Jared’s same-sex attraction is revealed in roundabout fashion after a disturbing incident.
After opening with some authentic-looking boyhood home movies of the main character, the movie immediately moves to Jared’s entry into the program seeking to convert homosexual teens and young adults back “straight.” Though Jared more or less attends willingly, early on the benevolent motives of the program — to facilitate change in those who want it — become undermined by both the attendees’ ambivalence and the thinly veiled hostility of members of its leadership and staff.
For example, there’s an early scene in which program head Victor Sykes (Edgerton) asks all attendees to list the “sins” of their family tree that the program believes is responsible for causing their young charges to go off course. But Jared struggles to fill his chart out because he’s unaware of ANY family sins, much less the sorts that the program wants to blame for his homosexuality. He’s a good, obedient son and his family, by and large, is whole and non-dysfunctional.
Simply put, Jared doesn’t fit the profile. And yet, here he is, wanting to submit to the process but increasingly finding it difficult, possibly pointless and even dangerous.
The performances in “Boy Erased” are excellent and layered. While it’s tempting to see certain characters as villains, neither Edgerton’s script nor direction allows them to neatly fit into the “bad” box. This is particularly true of Crowe and Kidman’s characters, who might have otherwise been caricatures in a lesser production. And Jared’s colleagues at the program also shine in their small but vital roles.
Breaking up the oppressive scenes at the program center are flashbacks where Jared reflects on milestone moments of his sexual identification process. But they aren’t sweetness and light. So much of this film is about squirm moments and heartrending scenes, though I suspect the degree of each will depend greatly on one’s life experiences. For some, a scene of assault will trigger some strong reactions. Others will take note of the clashes between Jared, who remains the good son, and his disappointed, conservative father and mother.
Having not read the book, I cannot say how faithful or not the film is to the source material. There is also the open question these sorts of “based on a true story” films pose: How much is real and how much fictionalized? For example, why does original author Gerrard Conely become Jared Eamons in the film despite, as a set of real-life family photos at film’s end show, the characters being very true to life? I’m sure there’s an interview or commentary that explains the change, but one is not privy to that info while simply viewing the film.
As a formerly more conservative Christian, I confess to being something of a believer in the concept of conversion therapy. So it was uncomfortable to see how those former beliefs played out in realistic fashion onscreen. A tense scene deep in the second act in which a seemingly well-meaning program leader reveals himself to be the worst sort of bigot unfortunately also rings true in my experience. Too often, even under the motive of trying to help, we’ve only ended up harming because we don’t stop to think if this is the help needed, as this marvelous film illustrates.
Love the sinner while hating the sin, the saying goes. But most of the time we end up hating both.
How about we just love and leave the sin out of it?
(I wound up preaching anyway. Sorry, Jay.)