Released: 8th February 2019
Directed By: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe
Reviewed By: Philip Price
As someone who constantly wrestles with their faith if not necessarily the belief in a higher power, one of the lessons I’ve personally come to learn in life thus far is that, despite many a country songs telling you to “stand for something or you’ll fall for anything,” the truth of the matter is that to so deeply steep yourself in one set of beliefs is to ultimately guarantee that you’ll eventually (in all likelihood) become a hypocrite. Human beings naturally evolve, we continuously experience new things, and gain greater perspectives on any number of situations all of which inform an ever-developing outlook on the world and the people that populate it. To be so stubborn as to try and categorize these present experiences and interpretations of life through the prism of a single piece of literature written over two thousand years ago only seems counter-intuitive to the abilities and intelligence God has blessed us with, not to mention a rather stressful way to frame ones existence; having to make sure what is inherently felt as right or wrong is supported by doctrine whose composers couldn’t have imagined the world or society as it presently stands. There is so much clout given to these rules that outline what our behavior should be that people seem to often lose sight of that inherent voice-your conscious, God himself, whatever you want to label it-that really lets you know when something is right and when something is wrong regardless of what anyone or anything else’s stance on the subject might be. That is not to say the Bible isn’t helpful, of course it can be and is to millions upon billions of people across the globe, and this is not to imply there aren’t certain absolutes of decency that can or should be swayed, but what is being suggested is that to commit so strongly to a single set of ideals is to also make one fear change. To fear change is to stop growing. And to stop growing is to willfully succumb to a limited or narrow view of the world. It is this conflict that Russell Crowe’s Marshall Eamons, a Southern Baptist preacher living in Arkansas, faces in director Joel Edgerton’s second feature, Boy Erased, when his teenage son is forcibly outed as gay.
Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, the film follows Jared (Lucas Hedges) who is the son of Crowe’s Baptist pastor and Nicole Kidman’s Nancy who is fully dedicated to her husband and his congregation. Needless to say, the family is deeply embedded in church life in their small town, but it’s also evident that Jared via flashbacks that function more as short vignettes is both a young man terrified and conflicted about his sexuality. In what is the most extensive flashback in the film, Jared has just broken up with his girlfriend, Chloe (Madelyn Cline), as he enters his first year of college. Living on campus in the dorms, Jared quickly becomes friends with the athletic Henry (Joe Alwyn-looking more and more like Alex Pettyfer) who he goes on morning runs and plays video games with to pass the time outside of class and extracurricular activities. Jared, still immensely confused about his feelings towards men, what they mean, and how he should respond to them is blindsided by Henry’s sudden advances that quickly devolve into something much darker and more vile. When Jared doesn’t respond the way Henry wants, Henry takes it upon himself to out Jared to his parents; ultimately forcing Jared to make the life-changing decision of either agreeing to attend a church-supported conversion therapy program that promises to “cure” him of his homosexuality or risk losing his family, friends, and the God he’d prayed to every day of his life.
It is in the structure of the film that we encounter issues that counteract the obviously powerful story. The story itself elicits as much sympathy as it does rage, but Edgerton’s adapted screenplay along with the editing from Jay Rabinowitz (Requiem for a Dream, 8 Mile) favors the present narrative of Jared experiencing the conversion camp over spending more time in these flashbacks that not only explore Jared’s past experiences in more detail and flesh out his character to an extent it makes the present on-goings all the more heartbreaking and frankly-outrageous, but these flashbacks might have also served to do the same for Jared’s parents and how the dynamic shifted between them as their perspectives changed or didn’t. This is especially true of Kidman’s character as Nancy makes the biggest turn in the whole film and yet, when her moment comes in the film’s third act to really shine and show off her chops, it doesn’t feel as if the character arc is as justified as it could have been. Sure, there is a scene or two of Nancy and Jared discussing the shortcomings of the program and the multiple spelling errors in the binder each participant is given (“Almighty Dog” is pretty great), but never do we see Nancy bear witness to or realize something that is the turning point in her attitude toward her son being gay. That isn’t to say this moment was necessary, but more that the screenplay utilizes Nancy as the example for what the movie intends to do for viewers who might view homosexuality as something that needs curing rather than treating her as an actual human being and mother. The film acts as if Nancy has seen everything that went on behind the walls of the institutionalized twelve-step program just as the viewer has and who finally decided enough is enough when, in reality, all she’s seen is the increasing anger and frustration the program is causing Jared to harbor. Even if the film only offered a few more silent scenes of Jared and his mother looking knowingly at one another after he returns from a day at the program the film would have felt more authentic in its finale whereas how it sits now simply feels like the logical conclusion rather than the natural one. Luckily, the film doesn’t end in this curtailed fashion, but instead it lays it all on the line pitting Jared against his father (who is obviously more hesitant and resistant to embrace his son’s lifestyle) and Hedges going toe to toe with Crowe. Hedges, who if you’ve seen a Best Picture nominee in the last few years you’ve likely seen in something, not only holds his own with the veteran actor, but the character confrontation along with the content of the exchange is undoubtedly one of the best moments in the film.
In regards to Crowe’s character-if the movie was going to place such an emphasis on not only the relationship between Jared and his father, but the program’s belief that it is the anger towards their fathers in many of these young men that have caused them to rebel in homosexual ways then it might have been more effective had a better sense of Jared and his father’s relationship been conveyed. As it is presented in the film, Marshall owns a Ford dealership in town where Jared works and is happy to attend his father’s church service every Sunday just as Marshall is happy to attend Jared’s basketball games and watch him take these small, but necessary steps towards becoming the man Marshall always envisioned his son to be. There’s nothing wrong with this outlook as a father, of course, and Marshall even offers sound parenting advice early in the film when stating that, “…small steps are a good way to approach adulthood; that way you don’t get all panicky when it suddenly shows up.” Marshall is a stand-up citizen, raised a certain way, and taught to live out his days the same way. And so, while he believes his son can’t be loved by his God if he “chooses” to be gay, he is also wise enough to know he is ill-prepared to handle something like this. Granted, in his ignorance he chooses to send his son to a conversion therapy program that he seemingly doesn’t research before handing over thousands of dollars and vehemently believes his love for his son is conditional based on what his Bible says is right and wrong, but this is the man his world made him into and the film never vilifies him for this. Moreover, Edgerton is more interested in illustrating Marshall’s own complications with the situation and how he too will deal with these unexpected changes in his life more so than it is in simply pegging him as the antagonist.
Boy Erased certainly has its shortcomings in the character department and those are only made more prominent given the fact Edgerton has rounded up such an impressive cast. This is especially true of the characters surrounding Jared at the conversion camp as figures such as Troye Sivan and Xavier Dolan, two very popular and very outspoken gay men, feel like little more than post-it notes of characters; present to deliver an idea on the different types of reactions these participants have to the program without really getting to know who either of them are. The closest we come to getting to know any of the peripheral characters is in the case of Cameron (Britton Sear) who it’s apparent from the beginning is something of an inevitable tragedy. Without going into too many details about the events that occur within the walls of this conversion program there is one scene in particular in which certain extremes are taken and one can’t help but to think that, if this God these people so fear is the God that actually exists, that he would be ashamed of the things they’ve done in his name. Conley, and by association, Edgerton’s main objective in telling this story was undoubtedly to outline and inform people of how damaging such treatments can be on young, impressionable minds who might barely understand what they’re feeling, much less understand why they’re being blamed for these feelings. In this sequence that places Cameron at the center we are forced to watch as this young man’s family have so convinced themselves that possible eternal damnation is greater than the expense of their son knowing they loves him; that this instructed belief is worth more than something that is undeniably real and tangible, undeniably theirs-someone they created.
It is in the film’s ability to depict the relationships between people and the relationships between people and their faith that the film finds its stride. Of course Jared is a perfectly normal, healthy, teenage boy, but through the church-this institution that has shaped and defined who he is and who he believes he is supposed to be-Jared has been told repeatedly that he should feel bad for who he feels he truly is. Whether Christianity is largely a religion that operates on guilt more so than it does to inspire people to be kind to and love one another is debatable with answers obviously going to vary depending on whom you ask, but in Edgerton’s Boy Erased he is quick to acknowledge the complicated nature of his subject; that everything that occurs in this film-believe it or not-is motivated by love. The film is quick to acknowledge that these motivations come from different kinds of people with different information and a different take on the truth, but that it comes from this want to help all the same. It is in Edgerton’s zeroing in on this rather forgiving perspective that he is able to not only craft a well-rounded and powerful piece of work, but a necessary one for those who don’t believe how easily love can cross over into hate. It’s hard to tell if Boy Erased will necessarily instigate change, but it makes a case for how detrimental these conversion camps truly are and, as stated, that seems to be the key objective for translating this story once more for film.