Movie review: “Boy Erased” draws and quarters the heart
Copy Desk Chief
It is not often that a film tugs at the heartstrings from quite as many directions as “Boy Erased” does. The film, which starts in medias res and unfolds in sporadic segments, draws from Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, depicting an Arkansas-based saga that is part coming-of-age classic, part sexual-politics critique and part horror story.
Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the only child of tempered, upstanding-type parents — Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist minister who owns a Ford dealership, and Nancy (Nicole Kidman), a soft-spoken Southern belle with a coiffed, Marilyn-Monroe-inspired hairdo. Their shared lives, for a while, are characterized by predictability — family dinners, Jared’s basketball games and, of course, Sunday mass, led by Marshall.
Yet, when, amid wholly problematic and vexatious circumstances, it is revealed that Jared “has thoughts about boys,” Marshall — under the guidance of God, another pastor and a man whose son has harbored similar thoughts — poses an ultimatum: Jared must either enroll in gay conversion therapy or compromise his position in the Eamons household. To save himself, Jared enters Love in Action.
The program imposes forceful, psychological measures upon Jared and other same-sex-attracted men and women in attempt to change their “condition.” Jared meets Love in Action’s head honcho, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote, directed and co-produced “Boy Erased”), whose qualifications are as scant as his tolerance: barring some moments of contrived patience, Sykes is ruthless in his mission to quash the queer out of his “patients.”
While the preconceived notions that guide Sykes and the other inflictors may read as satirical, or even comical — college-assigned Nabokov novels or leg-crossing enkindling same-sex attraction, for example — the repercussions on the receiving end are harsh, and are not lost on the viewer. Bring tissues.
Jared’s faith in Love in Action as a whole waivers throughout the film, and is often informed by the impressions and strategies of his counterparts. One boy (Xavier Dolan), whom Jared mistakes for a soldier, has been “contact-free” for some time, prompting salutes instead of handshakes. (Though, from the outset, all contact is either prohibited or strictly scrutinized.) Another boy (Troye Sivan) advises Jared to acquiesce to the program as much as possible — otherwise, he warns, one could lose everything.
Jared joins the ranks of Love in Action hoping to reconcile his desire for men with his desire to be accepted by his family. Yet, through the program, he instead must grapple with who he truly is, and how much he actually wants to change that. His parents, ultimately, must confront a similar conundrum: how can they, at once, exert unconditional love for their son, in his entirety, and their unconditional faith in God?
“Boy Erased” delves into this conflict-driven narrative, exploring both the exasperation of internalized homophobia among queer people and the turmoil at the intersection of Christianity and same-sex attraction. The film executes this superbly: it evokes emotion despite a crisp logical appeal.
The critique, in this sense, of Love in Action, and conversion therapy as a whole — which can still legally be practiced on minors in 36 states — is apparent. (For reference, Delaware, in July, 2018, passed a law banning practitioners from engaging in conversion therapy with minors or referring minors to different practitioners for conversion therapy.) Yet, “Boy Erased” stops there; it falls short in its critique of the faith- and family-based values that ultimately keep the lights on in institutions like Love in Action.
Regardless, “Boy Erased” is commendable. It showcases high-caliber acting by Hedges, Kidman and Crowe, and its non-chronological sequencing scheme fills in gaps as needed, fostering an all the more riveting viewing experience.