A young college student raised in a small southern town is sent to a gay conversion camp after a horrific assault forces him to come out to his parents. Based on the memoir with the same title by Garrard Conley, Boy Erased tells an unbelievable story of unconditional love and forgiveness. Directed by, starring and adapted for the screen by Joel Edgerton it is a deeply convicting and moving film guaranteed to make a real impact.
Jared (Lucas Hedges) is a completely normal college student and only child to Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), a Baptist Minister and his wife, Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Jared’s relationship with church and God has always played a large role in his life especially when he shares his secret with his parents. He is confused by his attraction to men and is looking for any way to rid himself of his inner turmoil. Without hesitation his father seeks the council of church elders who decide that the next step would be sending Jared to a conversion program. As an act of trust and respect for his parents Jared willingly agrees to participate. Once there he is exposed to countless instances of psychological and physical abuse by the leaders of the program all believing they are doing their Christian duty.
What makes this film so remarkable is the story itself. The message is so strong. The internal battle and pain that each of the members of this family are facing is incredibly complex let alone devastating. Jared’s relationship with his parents is completely shaken and none of them know how to move forward. It’s such a heartbreaking story but has a beautiful, hopeful message because of their relationship as a family. In one particularly powerful scene, I was so convicted to watch as Jared said something so simple yet poignant. During one of the program exercises he is told to talk to a chair as if it were his father. The leader, Victor Sykes (Edgerton) demands that he tell “his father” how much he hates him and why he makes him so angry. Jared can’t do it, he repeatedly shouts that he can’t say these things because they aren’t true, he doesn’t hate his father, he couldn’t hate his father. The scene was so powerful because here he sat in the program that his father enrolled him in because he couldn’t accept or love him in spite of being gay. It was inspiring to watch as Jared refused to use this and several other instances as a reason to become bitter or resentful when anyone else would agree he had every right to feel that way.
As soon as I saw the trailer for this film I was apprehensive about how some of the characters were going to be portrayed. It was disheartening to think that Christians would either be the villains or even misrepresented as they so often are. This is an emotionally complex film handling a delicate subject matter. There are clear villains and heroes here, and thanks to Edgerton’s astute direction you can see a hard line between Jared’s parents and the program leaders (literally) beating students with their Bibles. What the film is careful not to do is to cast immediate judgment on undeserved characters, for example Jared’s father. Part of me struggled to fully believe that Jared didn’t hold something against him for rejecting him and sending him off to be “fixed”. Later in an even more compelling scene, Marshall is finally able to admit to his son that sending him to the conversion camp was a mistake that wasn’t even about Jared but about his own selfishness and pride. These are the types of conversations that are reflective of real life; they’re ugly and sometimes incredibly shameful. Edgerton’s screenplay truly captured the heart of this story and effectively communicated it through the screen.
Strong lead performances and a solid supporting cast also play a large part in making this a great film. The supporting cast included the self-appointed therapist and director of the conversion camp played by a believable Joel Edgerton, and Russell Crowe as the authoritative father and good-natured southern minister. Crowe wonderfully demonstrated a father struggling to love his gay son, meanwhile continuing to be the spiritual leader of his community. Lucas Hedges continues to give powerful performances in each of his films; he is quickly becoming a young actor that I will be happy to keep my eyes on. Each of these men brought a lot to their characters and were compelling to watch but the most noteworthy performance came from Nicole Kidman. Beautiful is the one word that comes to mind when I think back on her performance it moved me to tears on more than one occasion. When the film opens she is the submissive, obedient wife, following her husband’s lead and sitting in the front pew every Sunday. By the film’s close her character has grown significantly in her compassion and love because of her son. Without revealing too much she chooses to follow her conviction despite her husband’s own feelings. If Kidman earns a nomination for this role I would be elated, this was my favorite performance of hers to date.
If you’re merely considering watching this film or you’re on the fence, I strongly recommend it. Not only is the film technically strong but also the message within the film is worth experiencing. It will challenge you and cause you to ask yourself some tough questions. This film will stay with you for more reasons than the realization that these camps exist all across our country but because of the prevailing evidence of unconditional love.
4 out of 5 stars
Director: Joel Edgerton Writers: Joel Edgerton & Garrard Conely Starring: Lucas Hedges, Joel Edgerton, Nicole Kidman & Russel Crowe Release Date: November 8th Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 55 minutes