Hedges, the boy erased (Images via Focus Features)
Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley's 2016 memoir about his time in conversion therapy at the insistence of his religious parents, has been brought to the screen by producer, director, writer and actor Joel Edgerton, who has given the book an empathetic, sobering, unimaginative yet affecting adaptation that rises above its shortcomings to pack an emotional punch.
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Coming after the release of the gutsier The Miseducation of Cameron Post, whose protagonist and director are female, Boy Erased can't help but feel decidedly more conventional, focusing on the story of an attractive white male who endures a stint at Love in Action just long enough to discover it's a harmful fraud, and who is immediately delivered from its clutches — the end.
But summarizing Conley's experience in that way does a disservice to the central performance of its star, Lucas Hedges (and to Conley's real-life experience), who brings the Conley-based character vividly to life as an intelligent, love-seeking boy who is torn between pleasing his parents and finding himself. Hedges brings to the film a flesh-and-blood character whose inner life percolates behind his blue eyes and disarmingly sweet, all-American face. The tension is between his destiny as a privileged kid from the South who is expected to get married, run a Ford dealership and consider himself blessed and his reality as a queer soul who is dramatically outed to his family; yes, there are other, more harrowing stories of conversion therapy out there, many from people more marginalized than this character, but his telling of his story — and, in flashes, of some of theirs — has a universal appeal because it is so honest and so sensitively handled. It does feel mainstream, but in the sense that the film could become an important messenger that this bogus practice is un-American, unscientific and abusive.
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Hedges, reminiscent of a young Timothy Hutton, takes us on his character's journey, always a few steps ahead of us so that as the darker elements unfold we're surprised when he is and not before. It is a masterful performance, from scenes in which his complicated relationship with his dad (Russell Crowe) is suggested to scenes with his more simpatico mom (Nicole Kidman) to a devastating scene that captures his open-hearted excitement and then dread and fear when his first sexual experience takes a heart-breaking turn.
Crowe is solid as the stubborn preacher father who insists his son needs to get right with God or must move out, but I was more ambivalent about the showier performance by Kidman as a doting mama bear. Distracted by her character's odd styling — she is sometimes unsuccessfully dressed in such a way as to make her appear less like a Hollywood goddess that immediately calls to mind Ann-Margret in 1991's Our Sons — and by her breathy, Marilyn Monroe-esque line deliveries, I did eventually warm to her as her character came into her own. Still, I'm not convinced she or Crowe had enough to do outside of help to guarantee this movie will be widely seen. (Troye Sivan barely registers in his bit part.)
Edgerton rewards himself with the film's juiciest role, that of Victor Sykes, the flamboyant ex-gay leader of Love in Action who veers from phony nice guy to Nurse Ratched in a flash. His performance is strong, but there is perhaps too much of him — the film's obligatory coda even ends with an update on the real-life man on whom the character is based.
Criticisms aside, Boy Erased works. Its depiction of small-town life, with its expansive warmth and yet its all-too-frequent intolerance, is spot-on, aided by cinematography that indeliby captures the family's home and Love in Action's HQ; the performances dovetail nicely (watch for a powerfully disturbing appearance by Flea, who is extremely fine here), giving Hedges the space he needs; and there is an undeniably heart-stopping sense that our hero narrowly avoided a far more damaging experience than the one he endured, saved not by his family but by his own, discovered ability to speak his mind, to make hard choices and to deliver an ultimatum.
The film is ultimately inspirational, in the best sense.
Boy Erased may not be the quintessential conversion therapy drama, but it is a compelling film that could help inspire citizens to work so that the legislatures in the over 30 U.S. states that currently allow conversion therapy might outlaw this barbarism. There are hundreds of thousands of Garrard Conleys who have already been scarred by this practice, and many won't achieve his happy ending.
Boy Erased reviewed at NewFest, where it was the U.S. Centerpeice. It opens November 2.