Boy Erased is not the first film in recent years to explore the interface between religious belief and sexual orientation. The horrendous act of gay conversion also finding a voice in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. However, on adapting the memoir of Garrard Conley, Joel Edgerton takes a much darker path to that walked by Cameron Post. The result of which is a less nuanced, far more gritty and unflinching reflection of gay conversion. The evangelical Christian camp, a prison in all but name, as the individuality of each young person is airbrushed into a god-fearing Christian soldier. The environment of the centre reflecting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in both structure and style. As its young ‘inmates’ either adapt and accept their teachings or rebel, and fall under the pressure.
Jared (Lucas Hedges) is the only child of his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and father Marshall (Russell Crowe); a lay preacher and car salesman. Jared is adored and loved, until his sexual orientation comes into question following a sexual assault at University. The brutal encounter where Jared is the victim, wrapped in unspoken desire and confusion. The perpetrator, a fellow college student and Christian who pounces on Jared’s vulnerability. His assault of Jared, one of the numerous cases of abuse he has committed in his church back home.
However, circumstances only worsen when a phonecall reaches Jared’s mother, the perpetrator outing Jared in an attempt to cover his tracks. In response, Jared quickly and honestly tells his parents about the students sexual behaviour. While at the same time, confiding in them that he does indeed hold sexual feelings for men. With the night’s revelations leading his father to contact fellow elders within the church for advice. His concerns centred as much on his reputation as his son’s welfare.
With Jared admitting he wishes to change his feelings, Marshall books him into a GP surgery for blood tests, asking the doctor to check his testosterone levels. The GP, in turn, tries to counsel Jared about the fact that his sexuality is normal and his decision, despite the circus surrounding him. However, Jared goes along with his parent’s instruction, booking into a conversion camp managed by Sykes (Joel Edgerton). But as the camps teaching begins to jar with Jared’s emotions and feelings, the dogma surrounding him both false and dangerous. Jared starts to slowly build his self-confidence, seeking emotional support from his mother. The result of which shakes the foundations of the family home, as Jared finds his inner peace as a young gay man.
Lucas Hedges puts in a commanding performance as Jared, balancing the need for parental approval with the need to chart his own unique path. The result of which is a barnstorming, emotive and assured exploration of a young gay man caught between community, church and family. While at the same time, Nicole Kidman offers a stunning exploration of a mother caught between her husband and son. Her path, one of personal freedom, religious tolerance and escape. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe embodies the sheer stubbornness of a man who cares more for reputation than his son. His life caught in a trap of religious dogma, position and power.
Edgerton reflects the damage, intolerance and power of community endorsed religious extremism with ease. While at the same time demonstrating the con of conversion therapy and the powerful long term effects on the young people at its core. However, despite a strong cast and exceptional performances, Boy Erased occasionally struggles to define its core message. Never quite determining whether it is an exposé of religious conmen who prey on community discrimination. Or a coming of age journey where family acceptance and belonging sits centre stage. Equally, the other boys and girls surrounding Jared in the camp feel under-developed, despite the exceptional ensemble cast.
Equally problematic is the sexual assault scene early in proceedings; a powerful statement on the dangers of hidden sexuality and power. But one that equally never finds resolution in its sheer emotional impact. These problems are mainly due to a limited runtime, but also create a slightly cold personal connection for the audience. However, despite these weaknesses, Boy Erased excels in shining an uncomfortable light on the devastation of conversion therapy. While at the same time highlighting the power given to preachers, who are both damaged and dangerous. The resulting film, a must-see for audiences young and old alike.
Director: Joel Edgerton