Movie Review – Boy Erased
Lucas Hedges is a young actor who emerged a couple of years ago and has now become a well-regarded and in-demand presence in Hollywood and on stage. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Manchester By the Sea (2016) at the age of 20, which makes him one of the youngest acting nominees ever. He followed that up the next year by appearing in two films nominated for Best Picture, Lady Bird (2017) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). This year might be Hedges’ busiest year yet. In addition to being in a Broadway play, that of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, he’s also in three feature films. This one positions Hedges as the protagonist, the central focus and in practically every scene. It might be in fact Hedges’ first lead role in a major motion picture, certainly the first where he plays the titular character and where he has to carry the entire film and no question he does so wonderfully.
Hedges stars as Jared Eamons, a teenage boy who’s probably a freshman in college. He plays basketball and probably got into college on a basketball scholarship. He has a girlfriend who is a cheerleader. He’s the son of a preacher in Arkansas. It’s not clear at first, but Jared’s mom drives him to a facility, which we learn children attend for gay conversion therapy. The film follows Jared’s experiences at this so-called therapy, as he realizes how toxic and harmful the place is and what he has to do to escape it.
The facility here isn’t designed like gay conversion-therapy facilities depicted in other films like the recent The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The facility isn’t like a summer camp that has a dorm where the children sleep, or if it does, writer-director Joel Edgerton doesn’t depict that aspect. If children do spend the night, then Jared simply doesn’t. The therapy sessions are like school classes, only lasting a few hours and after the sessions end, Jared is picked up by his mom and they spend the night together in a hotel.
Nicole Kidman (The Hours and Moulin Rouge!) co-stars as Nancy Eamons, the mother to Jared. She’s a typical, genteel, Southern woman. She loves her son, but she yields to her husband and goes along with sending Jared to this gay conversion facility. She’s also a woman of faith, so she too possibly believes that homosexuality is a sin. Yet, she’s clearly conflicted, mostly because she’s stuck between her husband and her son. There is a scene where she definitely has to make a decision for either of these two men in her life and Kidman is as moving as she was in her climactic scene in Lion (2016).
Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator) also co-stars as Marshall Eamons, the father to Jared. He’s the aforementioned preacher who also runs a Ford car dealership. He’s not a fire and brimstone kind of preacher, but while there might be a question with his wife, Marshall for sure believes homosexuality is a sin and won’t accept it. He refers to some older preachers or clergyman who obviously suggest that Jared go to gay conversion-therapy. The whole film is told through Jared’s point-of-view, so we never see Marshall’s decision-making, but clearly he wants to do whatever to ensure his son is straight.
Jared simply enters a room where his father and mother are, along with other men. What’s insidious is that Marshall never really orders or demands that Jared do this, at least not at first, but he does make it clear that Jared would be akin to excommunicated or possibly disowned if he doesn’t go to the conversion-therapy. It’s not as if it’s a heated exchange. The scene is quiet with very little melodrama and histrionics. Without many words in fact, Jared is backed into a corner where he has no other option but to go to this therapy, which some people might not understand.
If there’s a failing in Edgerton’s film, it’s in not showing the option and thus conflict for Jared. It seemed like Jared was possibly 18, technically an adult, when his parents learned he was gay. If so, it didn’t seem like he had to go, if he didn’t want to go. Jared was in college when his parents found out in a very horrible way. While in college, Jared had feelings for two boys at two different times. One was an athlete named Henry, played by Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Operation Finale), and the other was an artist named Xavier, played by Théodore Pellerin (The OA and It’s Only the End of the World). One is closeted and the other is not, but it’s through Jared’s relationship with one of them that his secret is exposed. The way the secret comes out is so ugly and shocking that it’s not surprising why Jared would so easily choose the therapy.
In The Miseducation of Cameron Post or But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), the young people in question are in fact minors. They’re underage, so their parents have a bit more control over their lives. If Jared is in college, I’m not sure what the overriding reason is for him to go along with this therapy. He’s obviously scared or heartbroken over the prospect of being disowned, but there’s no laying down of what that would actually mean. Maybe, it’s simply a matter of Crowe and Kidman being so sweet and loving that any such threat never feels real.
Hedges’ performance though counter-balances and through him, we see a young man who loves his parents and doesn’t want to lose them or be disowned. The majority of the rest of the film is Jared in the facility and what he has to undergo as the man who runs the facility, Victor Sykes, played by Edgerton himself, basically tortures the young people there. Most of it is stereotypes about masculinity and cliché gender norms, as well as performative behaviors that conform to traditional tropes about how a man should act. It also is about treating homosexuality as a disease or disorder, which the American Psychiatric Association debunked and ruled against in 1973.
Yet, even if it were a disease or disorder, the way Victor treats it is quite antithetical to how one would treat a disease or disorder, even one of a mental nature. He’s demeaning, aggressive and somewhat violent. He’s all about shaming these young people and/or even fomenting anger. This film lands with trying to push back against those emotions for love instead, simply taking a stand for something else or not tolerating that kind of intolerance.
Like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, we’re introduced to a bunch of young characters – also in therapy -whom the movie uses to explore other reactions or other paths that people can take. One of the best is that of Cameron, played by Britton Sear. His performance here feels almost as profound as Hedges. There are more recognizable actors like Xavier Dolan, the French filmmaker and even Troye Sivan, the pop star, but Sear is the better of all the young actors we see who aren’t Hedges.
If this film seems compelling, other films of interest include The Falls, Latter Days, Save Me and Fixing Frank.
Rated R for sexual content, including a rape, some language and brief drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.