Review: Boy Erased

Review: Boy Erased

by Alan Grant
article from Wednesday 13, February, 2019

FEBRUARY IS LGBT HISTORY MONTH and so the release of Boy Erased could hardly have been timelier. As the focus of much of the popular conversation turns to the historic achievements and struggles of the LGBT community, this searing and unflinching film, which touches on themes like homophobia, religion, family politics, and modernity, feels not only important but essential.

Boy Erased is a biographical drama based on the 2016 memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley and follows his character, named Jared Earmons (played by Lucas Hedges), as he is subjected to gay conversion therapy after being forced to choose between it and being disowned by his pastor father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman). The film’s narrative is broken up by flashbacks of Jared’s life as he struggles with his sexuality, identity, and the reactions of others. While at the ominously named “Love in Action” gay conversion programme Jared clashes with chief therapist, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and builds unlikely alliances with other boys being subjected to the course including Gary (Troye Sivan), Jon (Xavier Dolan), and Cameron (Britton Sear). 

Overall, Boy Erased is a very confidently and professionally made film for a number of different reasons.

It’s very well cast, with Crowe, Kidman, and Earmons constructing a tense, difficult, but deeply believable family dynamic that forms the film's emotional centre. The trio do an excellent job of building a well-rounded power schema in which beliefs, personalities, and desires conflict while never once moving into any kind of mawkish soap opera. Even Jared’s pastor father and mother, who are the catalyst for everything bad that happens to him in the story, are never given outright villain status (owing to stellar turns, particularly from Kidman whose personal conflict and nervous energy are sublime). Their conflicted natures are best described as providing flawed supporting characters. The interplay between the three is deep, meaningful, and hugely affecting. 

The film does not want for a villain however. Edgerton is marvellous as the manipulative and exploitative Victor Sykes, the chief therapist of LIA, whose explosive good cop/bad cop routine is part vaudeville, part Hannibal Lecter, and part Wolf of Wall Street. There is a particularly uncomfortable scene towards the end in which the extent of his malice and malevolence comes through – it’s a rough watch, but it’s utterly spellbinding.

‘Uncomfortable’ is a term that can be used to describe a lot of Boy Erased. In particular, the flashback scenes, including a daring and graphic depiction of male sexual assault and the scene in which Jared is offered his perilous choice, show us how this young man ended up in this abusive environment with the sinister dramatic irony and pathetic fallacy ramped up to an almost unbearable level. 

Jared’s painful outing, his struggles with intimacy, his familial conflict, and the other flashbacks are sure to draw in anyone with a shred of humanity and make them invest emotionally in his story. It would also be careless not to mention the faux-funeral scene in which Sear’s character is violently and psychologically abused – it’s so effective that others in the theatre were watching from behind their eyes or simply looking away.

Boy Erased is also built on some high-calibre foundations. It’s extremely well-written and benefits from being derived raw from its source material. Edgerton’s already considerable acting contribution is further bolstered by his sterling effort in the director’s chair and the editing work is proficient and unobtrusive – allowing the narrative to flow effectively. The music direction does its job and the set design and cinematography work together to produce an immersive experience – which isn’t always desirable during the film’s more agonising moments when a bit of hyper-realism would have been nice. It’s a bold and painful choice but it’s nevertheless the right one.

Where Boy Erased does let itself down slightly is in its pacing; we spend a little too long in the first act and some moments in the story’s mid-section needed a little more exposure to land as effectively as they might have. Also, while the flashbacks will prove a competent storytelling device for those who know their drama, those unfamiliar with the technique might find the structure a little difficult to comprehend and the time-jumping a bit on the tiresome side. 

These are, however, more or less exclusively superficial flaws surrounding what is an extremely solid production.

In the world of LGBT fiction, there has been a trend towards the positive and optimistic. Films like Love, Simon and books like Jake of Hearts and Other Parts and Less have done a great job showing gay kids that they are okay and can be the heroes of their own stories and that, despite adversity, there is reason to be cheerful and positive about how their lives will pan out. However, Boy Erased joins other films like Milk, the underrated Stonewall, and Pride!  in showing that same cohort – and other LGBT audiences – that there were and still are people out there who hate them and who need to be fought and beaten. 

Works like that provide a balance and vital teachable moments for LGBT audiences and others, and are therefore valuable for that reason.

Boy Erased is not a comfortable movie to watch and if it were not for the emotional payoff that begins at the end of act two and continues into the post-credits sequence it would be a thoroughly depressing experience. Its conclusion is, however, so effective, and the threads are drawn together so well, that audiences will leave with enough energy and righteous indignation to go out there and fight for what is right – even if it’s just in their own families – and that makes it worthwhile.

Boy Erased is a fundamentally moving, emotional-jarring, deep, bold, proficient, and profound gem of a film that succeeds fully without overstepping its limits or outstaying its welcome. If you’re looking for something with a bit of weight and heft to it, whether or not LGBT History month is important to you, then you could do much worse than Boy Erased.

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