We live in a world where 36 states do not have laws on the books that outlaw the barbaric practice of gay conversion therapy, where religious (usually Christian) families send their gay kids away to a camp in order to brainwash the homosexuality out of them. Even our current Vice President has arguably endorsed the practice in the past. 2018 has seen the release of two movies about the practice, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, released over the summer and starring Chloe Grace Moretz, and Boy Erased, starring Lucas Hedges. The latter, seeing release in the coveted fall awards season push this coming Friday, is the more high profile project of the two, written and directed by Joel Edgerton. It’s the second time Edgerton has stepped behind the camera for a feature, but this film seems to have more ambition than the enjoyable genre romp The Gift from 2015.
It helps that he’s got one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood, Lucas Hedges, at the center of his project. We all know about Hedges’ rise to stardom at this point, receiving an Oscar nomination for Manchester By the Sea in 2016 and starring in two best picture nominees in 2017 (Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Those roles have all been supporting turns, so Boy Erased represents his first real opportunity to take the spotlight himself. He plays Jared, a young Arkansan and son to a local pastor (Russell Crowe, who gained quite a bit of weight to play the portly character) and traditional but well-meaning mother (Nicole Kidman). The film begins in media res with Jared being sent away to a gay conversion camp run bhy Victor Sykes (Edgerton) in an attempt to stamp out his homosexual tendencies. Via periodic flashbacks, we see the events of Jared’s life that have led him to come out to his parents and thus be ushered away to change and be absolved of his sin. Jared arrives at the camp with a sincere hope it can change him, but that hope soon fades as he sees the atrocities the staff will commit to bring their charges back into the fold.
This is some heavy stuff, but Edgerton isn’t interested in making it just a one-sided screed. This is a story of people who have been blinded by their faith, their environment and their upbringing, only to realize too late the damage they are doing to the people they purport to love and support. It’s a tricky tone to manage, especially with an unassuming kid like Jared at its center. There are far more intense and flamboyant characters in camp, but this isn’t about them. It’s about how a “normal looking kid” and the product of a deeply religious household can be different, and the fight that comes with accepting himself in the face of conditioned and ingrained prejudice and biogtry.
Hedges has a difficult and unenviable task as the lead of Boy Erased. Jared is not a particularly outwardly dynamic character for much of the film; he’s torn between his desire to please his parents and please his God with the feelings he has in his heart. He arrives at therapy excited, with the belief that it’s something that will help him, only to realize the rot hiding within. But the big flashy moments, the events that cause his faith in the efforts to waver and set him on the path to escape the pull of these monsters, don’t happen to Jared, so the majority of his work is heavily internal. And, to its credit, Edgerton’s script doesn’t cop out with an internal monologue (something we see so often with true stories based on memoirs), putting all the pressure on Hedges’ ability to make the internal external without big moments to do the work for him. Luckily, he’s a preternaturally skilled actor, and more than capable of doing what is needed to make the story work.
At times, the structure of the movie doesn’t do him many favors, though. The way his history plays out via flashback is not particularly clear at the beginning, and it can be difficult to track when the film is in the present day and when it’s shifted to the past. This becomes a bit clearer later on, but Edgerton doesn’t do much filmically to announce that his film is changing timelines. It makes the first 45 minutes or so a tad unbalanced until the pacing and approach becomes clearer in the second half. It’s no surprise then that the second half of the film is stronger, where we dig more into the meat of who Jared is and just how much the experience weighs on him. He wants to please his parents and his God, but he knows deep down that he would lose himself to do that. And when things take a turn for the worse, especially with fellow classmate Cameron (Britton Sear), it’s clear that these programs aren’t just unethical; they’re actively dangerous.
Edgerton does an admirable job cutting to the core of how insidious programs like this can be. It’s built on foundations ingrained deep within the lives of these young, fragile souls. Faith, family, community, these are all such monolithic aspects of growing up that it can be difficult to fight against their urging, especially if you come from a somewhat tame upbringing. Boy Erased is at its best when it hones in on the family dynamics and the tumult in Jared’s life. The conversion therapy scenes are a little less engaging boilerplate sort of stuff; they’re fine, but they’re nothing particularly memorable. On balance, Boy Erased is a strong showcase for Hedges’ continued evolution as an actor and a decent expose on conversion therapy, though its wonky timeline has a tendency to undercut some of the character development. It remains to be seen what to expect from Edgerton as a director in the long run; this film is different enough in style and scope to The Gift that it seems he has some range to him. It’s a promising second effort and hopefully a sign that he will continue to challenge himself with thorny subjects and complicated character studies.