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USA 2018
Directed by
Joel Edgerton
115 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Boy Erased

Synopsis: Jared (Lucas Hedges) is the 18 year-old son of a small-town Arkansas Baptist pastor (Russell Crowe) who gets outed to his parents by a vindictive fellow student and is sent by them to a gay conversion program. His only supporter is his mother (Nicole Kidman).

Australian-born actor Joel Edgerton made his directorial debut in 2015 with the impressive psychological thriller The Gift. His follow-up, Boy Erased, for which he similarly also takes on the roles of writer and actor is an equally impressive social issue film which looks at the phenomenon of Christian gay conversion “therapy”, a combination of intimidatory persuasion and cultish brainwashing which according to the end-titles has ‘treated’ some 700,000 young people.

Based on a real-life memoir by Garrard Conley, Boy Erased is a thoughtful portrait of the self-styled conversion phenomenon as Jared is sent by his well-meaning parents to a military-style camp which attempts to erase his homosexuality through behavioural re-programming, which means basically, learning to act like a man in order to be a man (the program is run by a drill sergeant type played with comviction by Flea, better known as Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist) whilst Edgerton himself plays the unctuously manipulative camp director (about whom there is a revelation in the end-titles.

Unlike The Miseducation of Cameron Post from earlier this year which dealt with similar subject matter, Boy Erased gives us a more rounded, less obviously derisory account of the conversion phenomenon, particularly thanks to the involvement of Jared’s parents. Both Crowe and Kidman are deliciously good in their roles –a bulked-up Crowe bringing a physical solidity to a man who is unable to separate his genuine concern for his son with his stolidly simplistic religious prejudices whilst Kidman (who, worryingly, is starting to look like someone who looks a bit like Nicole Kidman) touching as the mother who gradually separates herself from her husband’s churchified response to  their son'ssexual orientation.  As Jared, Lucas Hedges, who co-starred in Manchester by the Sea (2016), is well-cast as the introspective young man trying to deal with the conflict between his sexual impulses and his religious up-bringing .

The account of Jared’s evolving relationship with his parents is the strongest, most dramatically engaging part of the film. As he himself isn’t fully certain that he is gay (he shows no outward signs) the actual sexual aspect is largely peripheral (bar a quite shocking rape scene) with the remainder of the story given over to depicting the re-programming techniques.

Some more attention given to Jared’s relationship with the other kids in the program (as was the case with Cameron Post) would have helped in rounding out the film (the two participants who do get some screen time, Jon and Gary, are played respectively by gay French film-maker Xavier Dolan and internet pop phenomenon Troye Sivan who also provides two songs to the soundtrack). Furthermore Edgerton doesn’t deal at all well with the only female gay inmate, played by Jesse LaTourette. The account of the day-to-day activities itself feels rather too familiar recalling in its essentially brutalized approach to indoctrination the first part of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1969). Time spent addressing these things may well have been more effective than two rather obvious God versus Science scenes that we do get.  

The film’s third act brings home if not exactly enlightenment (which would have been too much) then the possibility of reconciliation and acceptance between parents and their sexually unconventional offspring. Hopefully Edgerton’s commendably restrained approach to this important issue will earn it an audience particularly amongst those parents affected first-hand by it.




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