Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Joel Edgerton
Screenwriter: Joel Edgerton, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Cherry Jones
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/2/18
Opens: November 2, 2018
When you live in New York, the most progressive large city in America, you may not realize what’s going on in broad swaths of our country. Look at a map and you’ll find that blue states are largely in coastal areas while broad reaches of the South and Mid-West are red. And since New Yorkers live in a state where parents have been noted to demonstrate with signs saying “I am proud of my gay son,” we are unaware that millions of parents of gay children are either in denial or coerce their gay kids into pursuing change. These guardians, perhaps because they want to be grandparents or they believe erroneously that they are guilty of “making” their children homosexual, may opt to enroll their young ‘uns in gay conversion therapy. Never mind that this technique has been proven worthless and that few if any graduates change their sexual orientation.
Thanks to the writings of Garrard Conley, whose memoir “Boy Erased: A Memoir” recounts his weeks in an Arkansas center claiming to reverse the sexual orientation of their charges, we now have a movie adapting his book. “Boy Erased” could be called a biopic, though the names of the characters have been changed. Though Joel Edgerton, the director who plays a major role of a counselor, is known principally as an actor. “Boy Erased” is his sophomore entry in filmmaking.
You might expect a writer or director to come out forcefully and with brutal satirical edges in describing what goes on in gay conversion centers, but Edgerton’s character are appropriately nuanced. The head counselor at an Arkansas center, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), is not the sort of person you might want to have a beer with since he does carry on with a project that endorses some sadism. Though he seems to have no professional qualifications for the job, he treats the mostly young class of gays with tough love, breaking into some brutal treatment about midway into the story.
The nonlinear story is loaded with flashbacks which seem to me entirely unnecessary, as a straightforward chronological approach would have been less confusing. We are introduced to Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), the father of Jaren Eamons (Lucas Hedges) and husband of Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman). Since Marshall is a Baptist pastor who wants his son to marry his girlfriend and make him a grandfather, he sees his chances fading when the 18-year-old confesses to being homosexual. With the support of his religious wife, he enrolls the boy in a 23-weeks’ indoctrination program that pledges to bring the men and women back into the Lord’s fold. The principal problem with the program is its worthlessness, not the brutality, which is shown in two scenes involving beating a boy on the back with the Bible. Mostly the folks are treated with compassion.
Jared goes along with everything, sucking up his antipathy for the class, releasing his anger toward the movie’s conclusion, in effect dropping out while he still has some feelings of independence. Hedges, whom you may have seen in “Manchester by the Sea,” conveys his mixed emotions exquisitely, filling almost every scene with his presence, and is particularly watchable when bouncing his emotions off his mother, who ultimately accepts her son’s homosexuality; his father, who refuses to keep the lad under his roof unless he changes; and especially against the counselor. Given today’s efforts by Judge Kavanaugh to defend himself against charges of involvement in a near rape, we are particularly horrified to watch Jared’s being raped by his college roommate, reinforcing the idea that he has been too passive for much of his life and needs to break out or be emotionally crushed for decades.
One hopes that in states that still allow conversion therapy of minors—that’s all but a handful—people will go to screenings, which might inspire them to do their own research. A dispassionate look at the many reports that indicate that conversion therapy is not only cruel but worthless if the aim is to convert gays into hetero might convince some people but will likely be dismissed by Trump supporters who care little about science and more about mythology.
114 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B