REVIEW: Boy Erased [2018]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 115 minutes
    Release Date: November 2nd, 2018 (USA)
    Studio: Focus Features
    Director(s): Joel Edgerton
    Writer(s): Joel Edgerton / Garrard Conley (memoir)

Almighty Dog.

I’ll never understand religion’s ability to shield believers from its inherent contradictions. I’ve seen faith help many in my family through its power for hope, healing, and positivity. But never have they been tested as far as making the choice to reject Catholicism’s rigidity where it pertains to subjects they’re simply happy to excuse with empty parroting from afar. They try and play both sides of issues—sticking to what they believe without “finding the need to prevent someone else from thinking the opposite.” They’re allowed to do this because those differing “opinions” remain abstract. That distance allows them to believe their belief is an opinion despite truth proving it’s actually just prejudice. And the sad reality is that I do believe most would choose religion over humanity.

They would align with Pastor Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), a man who’s built an identity off his Baptist faith. You can’t necessarily blame him for doing so since it’s his job, but you can call out his hypocrisy once he exposes the love for his son carries certain conditions. What we discover is that he loves Jared (Lucas Hedges) for those things he can do and become as a “man”: playing basketball, enjoying fast cars from his dealership’s lot, and one day assisting in bringing a grandchild into this world. He loves his son insofar as Jared provides a vessel with which to absorb his version of religion rather than allow him to create his own. So when the seed of homosexuality is planted, Marshall’s love is challenged.

This father/son dynamic within Joel Edgerton‘s Boy Erased (based on Garrard Conley‘s memoir for which I can only imagine his character’s name was changed to stay consistent with everyone else’s name needing to be altered) is only overshadowed by that shared by Jared and his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). That one proves more resonant because it’s steeped in empathy rather than pride. Where Marshall sees his son as a soul needing to be saved, Nancy sees him as someone needing protection. That doesn’t mean she has the courage to act accordingly at the start, but the situation is complicated by what’s left unsaid at their collective point of no return. With Jared facing conversion therapy, the pain in his parents’ eyes and his own indoctrination leads towards acquiesce.

So Jared goes to Love In Action with a desire to change for family and faith. It’s a unique vantage for this type of story since the one where the “patient” is forced to attend (see this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post) proves more prevalent. We’re not therefore watching how Jared endures the abuse we know he’ll find under the unqualified hand of Victor Sykes (Edgerton), but how he’s awakened to what his mind had been conditioned to reject. We watch as he recalls his past sexual experiences for what they truly were rather than events he needed to repress. We watch as Jared discovers Sykes to be a man possessed with his father’s beliefs, but also the maliciousness in action for which Marshall stopped at words.

It’s these relationships that serve to affect us emotionally. Seeing Nancy open her eyes to how little she knows about what’s happening and Jared opening his to the imbalance between love and hate within his religion is powerful stuff. Unfortunately for the film’s success, however, there’s a lot more going on. Rather than hinge Jared’s awakening on the comparison between father and counselor, the story uses the lives of those going through the same predicament to fuel it. How Gary (Troye Sivan) bides time until escape, Jon (Xavier Dolan) lies to himself about there being a “cure,” and Cameron (Britton Sear) succumbs to a hate he doesn’t understand (Jared knows where his father’s hate was born) may propel his journey, but it distracts us from the core message.

The fact Boy Erased provides a fifteen-minute epilogue to depict the aftermath of what Jared, Nancy, and Marshall have learned proves it’s about family above anything else. It’s not about what happens during abusive conversion therapy sessions, but how those horrible truths can shake good people from their irredeemable delusions. So it’s tough to reconcile the amount of time spent with Gary, Jon, Cameron, and the others when the film doesn’t actually care about them. By using them as pawns to guide Jared to his truth, the way in which they are personally victimized comes off as disingenuous. It doesn’t matter that it all (probably) happened. Not allowing these periphery characters the respect to become more than carefully manufactured triggers to shake Jared awake feels exploitative.

It’s too bad because the stuff happening with the Eamons is great. Edgerton fleshed out the contradictions and challenges they face as individuals and a unit very well with the help of nuanced performances by Hedges, Kidman, and Crowe that say so much with silence. I only wish he were able to find a way to push the other inmates into the background and focus on Sykes paternal stand-in instead. If we see what happens to them through his actions rather than their own, we’d have a villain to target instead of sympathetic souls we hope will be saved only to find the film forgetting they exist. I understand wanting to give them screen-time, though, since they surely impacted the real Conley. The script simply cannot support them.

As such, every moment we spend with them is a redundant lesson Jared already learned and thus minutes taken away from the impact of what’s happening on the Eamons themselves. Hedges is good enough to let his reactions to events visualize his awakening without Sivan and Dolan needing to take him aside to explain it with unnecessary dialogue that kills the pacing. Give me more of Nancy’s epiphany. Give me more of Marshall’s internal wrestling match between love and faith. Where those trajectories end becomes rushed since the film is trying to tell two stories at once. If you start with Jared’s relationship to his parents and finish there too, make certain that’s where the focus stays throughout—especially since its effective enough to sustain the runtime alone.

[1] Nicole Kidman stars as “Nancy” and Lucas Hedges stars as “Jared” in Joel Edgerton’s BOY ERASED, a Focus Features release. Credit: Focus Features
[2] (l-r.) Lucas Hedges stars as Jared and Russel Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Jared’s parents, Marshall and Nancy in Joel Edgerton’s BOY ERASED, a Focus Features release. Credit: Focus Features
[3] Joel Edgerton stars as “Victor Sykes” in BOY ERASED, a Focus Features release. Credit: Focus Features

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