Review: Boy Erased

Baptist preacher Russell Crowe and wife Nicole Kidman wrestle with the knowledge that their son Lucas Hedges is gay. Crowe’s answer, in consultation with fellow religious figures, is to send the boy to a gay conversion therapy retreat headed by Joel Edgerton. Kidman starts to see that Edgerton’s methods are insidious, manipulative, destructive, and completely and utterly useless. Crowe sinks his head into his bible for answers, whilst poor Hedges is in utter torment, wanting to please his parents, whilst also knowing that he’s gay and that’s just how it is. Can mother and son get through to Crowe before Hedges’ is completely destroyed? Troye Sivan plays another gay kid, Cherry Jones is a doctor, and musician Flea plays a military-style associate of Edgerton’s who tries to teach the gays how to be ‘manly men’ like him, whilst Edgerton tries to tie things to learned patterns of unacceptable behaviour or some disingenuous bullshit.

Co-star/writer-director Joel Edgerton has a bit of a tough task to perform here with this 2018 adaptation of the Gerrard Conley memoir. Although based on truth, the subject of religious gay conversion therapy is, at least for me, incredibly difficult to make convincing on screen without resorting to foolish and histrionic one-dimensional stereotypes. Because anyone who believes in gay conversion therapy is foolish, obviously. I’d find the entire subject laughable if it weren’t so sad, pathetic, and horribly destructive. And if you do paint such characters as eye-rollingly one-dimensional negative stereotypes on screen, it’ll also come off as playing somewhat unfair. So there’s that too, because there’s no point in (pardon the pun) preaching to the converted, either. So Edgerton needed to play this one as straight and three-dimensional as possible if he was going for true-to-life drama here. With the exception of one ill-advised and silly literally bible-bashing scene, Edgerton plays this thing as subtle and relatively respectful of the characters here. I still think this kind of thing is better off in documentary form (and I was initially confused by the flashback structure), but Edgerton does a pretty solid job as a filmmaker overall.

Edgerton does a good job as filmmaker and actor in capturing how insidious these people who peddle conversion therapy are. This guy in particular takes the cake, making truly awful analogies and trying to point to other bad behaviour by family members as somehow a reason why they are acting out homosexual behaviour which is, in this warped viewpoint, apparently a behavioural choice. I mean, the real reason is right there in front of them, but Edgerton is peddling this ‘choice’ bullshit. He’s like a combination of Jerry Springer goading tactics and borderline frightening cult leader insidiousness/mental disintegration. Instead of trying to get people to throws chairs and snatch wigs, Edgerton is trying to get these poor people to think they’re pissed off at someone in their family or personal life when no, they’re just pissed off because you’re an agitating prick who is whipping them up into a frenzy. Also, if this was all on the level, why all the secrecy? Yeah. Funny that.

Edgerton isn’t the most impressive performer in the film, though. I actually think he’s a bit miscast, to be honest and was more interested in the character itself. The film would be barely worth even a soft recommendation if not for the strong lead performance by Lucas Hedges. In a film featuring some pretty heavyweight acting talent and star power, Hedges carries this entire film on his damn back with his perfectly sensitive and powerful performance. Without him towering over everything, you’ve pretty much got a TV movie/B-movie that just somehow managed to attract a few big stars. If you can get past Nicole Kidman’s overdone ‘Conservative white homemaker’ visage, she gives a pretty good performance as Hedges’ loving mother. True, the real-life character she’s playing did have that kind of look, but it plays a bit caricatured, and Kidman’s overall performance (and interesting character) deserves better than that. Some caricature was unavoidable here given how silly the idea of gay conversion therapy is, but that hair is just hideous and distracting. Russell Crowe isn’t in a whole helluva lot of the film, and in fact at the start you wonder if he’s just going to be a cameo player. At times it feels like he’s in a film of his own, rather than being a part of this one. However, he gets more scenes in the back half, and does rather well. Playing the kind of guy who believes that all of life’s answers can be found in the pages of just one book (or series of books), he solidly conveys a man who is torn between what his faith/religious doctrine tells him and the love a father should unconditionally have for his son. It’s one of Crowe’s more subtle and interesting performances, so it’s a shame he’s not in more of the film. We also get two really interesting supporting performers by the one and only Flea and Cherry Jones. Flea plays mean and hateful quite convincingly and rather unsettlingly as the worst kind of ‘masculine’ influence. Jones, an ‘out’ lesbian herself, scores in her brief cameo as a doctor who, despite being a Christian, is level-headed enough to know what’s what and has no time for gay conversion therapy whatsoever. Whilst Hedges gives the film’s most impressive performance, Jones and Kidman probably play the most important characters in making this as fair and balanced as possible. The film ends on a gobsmacking statistic about gay conversion therapy in modern America, followed by the best, most unintentionally hilarious and completely infuriating plot detail about the character Edgerton plays. You’ll hardly believe it.

A compelling subject that is perhaps better served in documentary form, but this is a pretty decent stab at a 3D portrayal of some frankly non-3D characters. Lucas Hedges is outstanding and some of the supporting cast are good, too. Slightly overrated, like “Brokeback Mountain” was, but worth seeing nonetheless.  

Rating: B-


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