"Boy Erased" is an important film, and also a wise one, shedding crucial light on deeply damaging gay conversion therapy programs and the struggle for acceptance of LGBTQ youths within heavily religious families and across the too often close-minded, unenlightened Bible Belt. Writer-director Joel Edgerton (2015's "The Gift
"), adapting Garrard Conley's book "Boy Erased: A Memoir," is careful not to demonize or paint with broad strokes, finding tortured humanity beneath surfaces of bigotry, fear, and blind evangelical belief. His film is harrowing, even enraging, but there is a greater purpose and an ultimate sense of hope that may, in its last transcendent moments, take one's breath away.
When college freshman Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is forced to come out to his parents under less-than-ideal circumstances, his father, Baptist preacher Marshall (Russell Crowe), gives him an ultimatum: attend the 12-day "Love in Action" conversion camp run by uncertified counselor Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), or be cast out of the family. Jared wants to belong within his Arkansas community and certainly doesn't want to lose his relationships with his dad and mom, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), so he agrees. On day one, Jared is informed homosexuality is a learned behavior, the result of sins within his genealogical tree passed down to him, and the offensively misguided treatment goes downhill from there. Jared, like the other patients, are shamedand, by extension, made to feel shame. How can one fix something, however, that isn't broken, that is indeed a natural, biological part of one's very being?
"Boy Erased" is a tremendously affecting drama, all the more so knowing its non-fictional roots. The narrative threads tough, touching remembrances of the near-past with the psychological brutality of the here and now, all serving to bring understanding to Jared's predicament and his journey toward embracing himself and what he knows is right. This is not a rose-tinted depiction of being gay, either, but a glimpse into the deep sense of self-loathing with which children are indoctrinated, in effect cascading from one victim to the next. In flashback, a tentative crush between Jared and new college friend Henry (Joe Alwyn) takes a starkly unexpected turn. At the conversion camp, Jared cannot believe what he's seeing when kind therapy patient Cameron (Britton Sear) receives a humiliating punishment, brutalized by not only the counselors but also his own family members. Meanwhile, another memoryone in which Jared meets artist Xavier (Théodore Pellerin) and goes on to experience his first moment of true romantic intimacyis every bit as powerful in its sublime, understated observation.
Performances are as authentic as the conservative milieu which surrounds them. Lucas Hedges (2016's "Manchester by the Sea
") is superlatively cast as Jared, his initial desire to change for his parents transforming into desperation, resentment, and then acceptance. Every note Hedges strikes is honest and emotionally raw, leading toward a pair of scenesone with his mother, the other his fatherthat rank as two of the most indelibly written and performed of the year. As mom Nancy, Nicole Kidman (2017's "The Beguiled
") is a force to be reckoned, finding humor and warmth in a woman torn between her love for her son and abiding by her husband and church's influence. Russell Crowe (2016's "The Nice Guys
") is excellent as well, his Marshall casting a daunting shadow of set-in-his-beliefs stubbornness over his family. The hypocrisy of his teachings become clearer to Jared with each moment of self-realization, and a late conversation he has at his dad's Ford dealership finds a piercingly poignant way of portraying their attempt to find common ground even as Jared makes clear he will no longer pretend to be anyone other than the person he is.
"Boy Erased" avoids sensationalism while getting to the aching, unsentimental heart of its subject matter. Jared is a complex and compelling protagonist, deserving of love and acceptance but facing the hurdle of an insular society that tells him his sexual orientation is wrong, sinful, an abomination. For anyone in his position who breaks free from this intolerance, there are those who do not, who bury who they truly are for a lifetime, or, worse, are brainwashed into believing they do not deserve to continue living at all. In revealing the bleak truth behind gay conversion programs, writer-director Joel Edgerton has made, at its core, a textured family story between three people forced to reassess the discriminatory nature which has been drilled into their beliefs as they struggle to come to terms with a piece of who Jared intrinsically is that will neverand cannot everchange. The final image of "Boy Erased" may be its most cathartic, a long-coming acclamation of free will, of making peace with the present and finding solace in one's own authentic identity. This is an exceptionally moving, beautifully modulated film, hopefully eye-opening for those whose eyes have been closed for far too long.