This film showcases how confusion, love and good intentions can devastate and destroy young people searching for their place in society.
The world of conversion therapy, and the families who turn to it for a solution, is explored with empathy and compassion for all those involved, and in this way 'Boy Erased' is a thoughtful contribution to a conversation we apparently still need to have.
'Boy Erased' is based on real events, and is an adaption of a memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley. It is not particularly gripping or – with the exception of one brutal scene – shocking; rather it is the ordinariness, the mundane and the botched attempts at pop-psychology that is the film’s strength, it highlights how a normal, loving family can really believe this is the best option for their son, and how the people leading the conversion therapy genuinely believe they are acting out of love.
The acting is formidable. Lucas Hedges plays the lead role of Jared Eamons, and is wonderful. Lucas portrays a sense of innocence and commitment to faith that is slowly unravelled to reveal a surety of self that is deeply convincing. Only one scene felt jarring or forced, when Jared yells at a sexy advertisement of a dripping wet, half naked man. Everything else rings true.
The rest of the casting is both brilliant and at times problematic. By casting such mega stars as Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Jared’s parents, and the interesting choice of Flea as an ultra-masculine conversion therapy coach, the film risks jolting viewers out of the story. Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) is pretty much what the viewer imagines: he is a Baptist pastor and owns a Ford dealership. The car sales team pray together each morning before opening the dealership doors. Russell Crowe embodies his character – and when the real life family photos are shown in the end credits, you can see exactly how much he resembles the man he is portraying. Nicole Kidman too is a force, her character goes from being the meek, ever-smiling supporter of her husband to achieving significant character growth and depth.
While it is fascinating to watch and really grounds the film, Nicole Kidman looks like Nicole Kidman in a bad blonde wig. The glittery false nails and multi-coloured eye shadow do little to help the audience forget the mega famous actress behind the make up. In some scenes, she was quite distracting. Flea faced a similar challenge, although he too puts in a strong performance. Troye Sivan, however, is a stand-out. Despite his quite minor role, he shines.
Joel Edgerton, who also adapted and directed the film, plays Victor Sykes, the leader of the conversion therapy camp. He too follows the arc of trying to pray away the gay, to accepting his true self (although this isn’t revealed until the credits). The struggle of each of the characters really comes through, with Victor – who has zero credentials to be operating any therapeutic institution – bluffing and blustering his way through sessions. Each therapy participant/victim has a back-story that is subtly exposed, and gives different perspectives about how people can find themselves in this situation: some go willingly, or desperately, others are coerced. The most jarring aspect is the love, after each video-recorded humiliation, participants are told that they are loved by their tormentors, and it seems like Victor and his acolytes really believe they mean it.
That is the core and strength of this film. Everyone is trying to do what they believe is right and best, it’s just that they are very, deeply misguided. Their ignorance has consequences, but for the most part the ramifications are quiet, exemplified by the slow deterioration of relationships.
The shock value, when it comes with the end credits, is that these camps are not a relic of a by-gone era. They are still firmly entrenched in some devout communities, and even continue to be advocated for by the current Vice President of the United States. Rather than yelling at these communities for their ignorance and the damage they cause, this film seeks to understand the individuals that comprise them. In this, it is entirely successful.