Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased centers on a school committed to the opposite of education, a school of cruel ignorance and unlearning, a sort of reverse Hogwarts committed to tearing away each student’s singular essence and disgorging into the world muggle after muggle. Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir, the film finds a young man coming out as gay to his evangelical parents and then getting packed off to what their set calls “gay conversion therapy,” a term so specious and detestable it should never be afforded the dignity of appearing without scare quotes. Both book and movie stand as vital exposes of abusive zealotry, of the Dickensian charlatans and tormentors running programs that purport to straighten out LGBTQ kids, but also of the parents and church communities willing to overlook those kids’ mistreatment, trusting them to the care of hucksters lacking expertise and credentials.
Unlike Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on a YA novel and set at a “gay conversion” summer camp, Boy Erased plays out as something like reportage. It documents with an incisive drabness the group sessions, garbled sermons and general shoddiness of Love in Action, the program that 19-year-old Jared (Lucas Hedges) gets enrolled in by his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.
Director Edgerton resists the impulse toward satire, toward scoring laughs off right-wing kookery. Instead, he holds to Jared’s perceptions, showing us how a thoughtful young man slowly learns that the adults in charge of his life know less about the world than he does. That’s not to say the film lacks funny moments. I almost choked on a cough drop when Jared griped about the abundance of typos in Love in Action’s printed material, and a speech that one counselor gives about each person being like a dollar bill is a masterpiece of the sort of slick yet meaningless homily my teenage self strove not to giggle at in church.
Still, the Love in Action scenes have a brooding power. Edgerton plays the head “counselor,” who insists that his charges surrender their phones and diaries, forbids them from using the restroom without an adult watching and demands they write detailed summaries of what they’re told are their families’ moral failings. Which relatives abuse drugs, which had abortions and who might the staff find to blame for these kids’ sexuality? Jared, a respectful kid whose dad is a Baptist pastor, bristles at this ethos of judgment, at the way one counselor tells him that any relative Jared thinks might be an alcoholic definitely is one.
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The dramatic through line is Jared’s growing certainty that the only real sin he sees is Love in Action itself. As in Cameron Post, the protagonist spends much of the film not doing much, taking it all in; unlike that film’s hero, Jared doesn’t make a squad of cool friends to help him through his “therapy” experience, even though director Xavier Dolan is on hand as another inductee, and Flea (yes, Flea!) appears as a counselor. Despite the stunt casting, that structure makes the film a bit of a sit: We watch waiting to see how bad things will get before the lead finally takes action.
The answer is pretty bad. Hedges is movingly torn in the early scenes, as Jared tries, at first, to get something out of a program that insists that his sexual orientation is just bad behavior rather than his essential self. There’s not much for him to do in many scenes, though, other than to observe and look increasingly uncertain. When Jared finally erupts, screaming truth at men who pretend to wield it themselves, Hedges nimbly navigates the character’s hurt, fear and burgeoning pride — his relief at having at last found his (raw, teary) voice. In the film’s final third, when Jared takes command of his own story, Hedges’ work is as strong as what he accomplished in Manchester by the Sea.
The movie stars playing Jared’s parents also acquit themselves well, though a big monologue Kidman gets toward the end seems imported from another kind of movie, a melodramatic showstopper in a film otherwise committed to everyday speech. But her character does seem to perform the role of the preacher's wife, with a teased-out Dolly Parton ‘do and at least one fancy beaded jean jacket. So maybe monologues that could be audition pieces come naturally to her, especially when she’s breaking with church morality to offer support to her son.
Crowe, meanwhile, plays Pastor Eamons as a man who also performs his role. He’s the quiet believer, the wannabe rock, a man who purports to have the strongest of faith but in actuality is so terrified of challenges to it that he refuses to consider any information that might contradict his beliefs. Then, when his own life experiences have eroded his certainty, he still can’t quite admit it. The film, like the memoir, has love for the pastor, even as it invites us to wonder what kind of God would want such small-minded representation in this mortal realm, a man committed to attempts to unmake his God’s creations.