Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Boy Erased is a sad story made even sadder when you reflect that it is true and that similar stories go on to this day. Jared is the eighteen-year old son of a pastor. He loves his parents. He is also hiding something from them: he is gay. Ashamed and frightened for Jared’s mortal soul, they enroll him in conversion therapy to “fix” him. Jared’s journey of self-discovery is a painful one, told with poignancy. It is not “fun”, but it is rewarding and important. Additionally, it features maybe the best in a series of impressive performances from 21 year-old star in the making Lucas Hedges.
The movie begins with Jared arriving at the Love in Action conversion program. At first, Jared is invested in the therapy. He wants to be “cured” of his sinful thoughts because he does not want to disappoint his parents. He answers the questions and does his homework as best as he can. However, soon the homophobic attacks and aggressive insistence that the students chose to be gay out of a desire to upset their parents wears on him.
Boy Erased (109 minutes without the end credits) has a somewhat inevitable arc. The drama comes from inside Jared, not from plot. He is battling the teaching, his own shame and his upbringing. Flashbacks are used to fill in Jared’s background and establish his relationship with his parents but, in a way, for Jared, those events are always going on in the present.
Joel Edgerton (who wrote/directed/produced and co-stars as the lead instructor of Love in Action) allows the story to unfold more than he really tells it. The movie has a pretty clear opinion of this treatment (it is based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir), so there is some manipulation here. That makes sense since its intent is to expose these kinds of camps and get viewers to understand how harmful they are to the men and women who are sent to them. Edgerton is able to relay this message in a sensitive and caring way, as opposed to a pushy one.
He is helped in this by his actors, including himself. He is good, if necessarily one-note, as a man convinced of the moral wrongness of homosexuality. The purpose is not to make him a three-dimensional character, but to use him as an example of this type of therapy. Nicole Kidman, as Jared’s mom, is sweet and sympathetic. While she trusts her husband, she shows genuine concern for her son’s well-being during their time at a hotel as he attends the program.
Russell Crowe has a difficult role as Jared’s father. Did he send his son to Love in Action because he believes homosexuality is a disease and is truly worried about Jared’s mental health? Or did he do it because he is embarrassed to be a pastor with a gay son? That question lingers over him until the end, when it is mostly answered. Crowe is effective playing against type, but not enough time is taken to really get at the heart of his character.
As good as the other performances are, Boy Erased was always going to live or die with the actor playing Jared. Lucas Hedges has already been nominated for an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor in 2017 for Manchester by the Sea) and put in solid work in projects like Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is his first starring role and it proves how gifted he is. Jared’s struggle is internal. Hedges does not get a lot of speeches to explain how he feels. The performance is not showy. This is a shy, scared, young man whose life up to this point has him ill-prepared to deal with something like this. Everything he has learned has taught him he cannot be gay. Hedges suggests this identity crisis in small ways because that is the most Jared can muster. It is a very strong performance that could get him a second nomination if the movie gains enough traction in the next couple of months.
This time of year there are a lot of sad, socially conscious, true life stories filling up theaters in a late rush for award consideration. Boy Erased definitely fits into that category. There might end up being several better examples of this before the season is over, but it is still worth seeking out. It is a moving case study about how ignorance and a total lack of empathy can ruin lives. Though this is not a feel-good movie, the emotional journey is satisfying.
4 out of 5
Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons
Nicole Kidman as Nancy Eamons
Russell Crowe as Marshall Eamons
Joel Edgerton as Victor Sykes
Britton Sear as Cameron
Troye Sivan as Gary
Directed and Screenplay by Joel Edgerton