You know how the world of cinema tends to offer up conveniently timed little series of films that, although not directly related, seem to share a sensibility and companionship in terms of theme and subject matter? Well, the tail end of 2018 going in to 2019 offered once such series up in the shape of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post and Boy Erased. Whilst the former tells the story of a teenage girl sent to gay conversion therapy, the latter details the similar journey (albeit based on a true story this time) of a teenage boy.
Based on the 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley (names have been changed for the film), Boy Erased details the experiences of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the teenage son of a Arkansas preacher (Russell Crowe) who after being outed in college, is sent to the Love In Action gay conversion programme. The film weaves between flashbacks and the present day to paint a tragic picture of blind religious bigotry and out and out emotional and physical abuse, but most importantly, also the power of the human spirit to be resilient in the face of shameful oppression and discrimination.
Boy Erased has a lot of very important things to say, but I can’t recommend it as a pleasant watch. But then again, it’s absolutely not intended to be. From Jared’s parents painful reactions to the infuriating injustice and religious pointlessness of his ‘therapy’ to the fact that his only real sexual experience thus far has been as the victim of a college rape, the film is almost too bleak to bear at times. It is unflinching in its portrayal of the ignorant culture surrounding gay conversion, leaving you as a viewer more infuriated and appalled than anything else.
The film hits all of the obligatory beats one would expect, but it does feel like something is missing, and I think it might be that the majority of Jared’s ‘coming of age’ moments happen off camera, leaving mostly his darkest moments and miseries to play out on screen. In many ways, it feels more like an allegorical movie for parents than it does a movie for the youth, something that is very much the opposite case in Cameron Post. The narrative onus is much more on Jared’s father and mother (Nicole Kidman) than it usually is in this kind of film, an examination not necessarily of the protagonist’s sexual awakening but rather of the damage (and regrets) that parents can have on their queer children, a portrayal of just how bad things can get through their own ignorance and prejudice.
In terms of its place in the broad spectrum of queer and coming of age films, Boy Erased certainly doesn’t fall in to the category of ‘hopeful’. It’s a tragic, gritty, realistic telling of a true story that details a very specific set of Christian fundamentalist circumstances. Jared may have made it out and moved on with his life, but that doesn’t detract from the turmoil that he had to experience before his emancipation. Absolutely an important watch rather than an enjoyable one, but good films don’t always have to leave you beaming and joyous in your seat.
The film is served well by valiant performances from all the leading players. As Jared, Lucas Hedges is heartbreakingly sincere, assured of his evident sexuality yet simultaneously innocent and God fearing. There is extra level of nuance required to play a gay character who also has the oppression of religious fundamentalism in their story, and Hedges carries the weight of the role to really impressive effect. You fall in love with Jared instantly, which makes the proceeding two hours of pain and injustice really tough to watch.
As his parents Marshall and Nancy, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman both do well to embody a nightmare scenario and mixture of religious obedience and blind ignorance, whilst managing to retain that all important glimmer of regret and abiding familial love that prevents the audience from labelling them as complete two dimensional monsters. The relationship and chemistry between Kidman and Hedges in particular is something that really plays on the emotions, arguably the beating heart of the film.
It is always a feature of films like this to have a good cast of both villainous and likeable therapy characters, and Boy Erased certainly follows suit with strong but brief performances from the likes of Troye Sivan, Britton Sear, Flea and Jesse LaTourette. Joel Edgerton makes a particularly big impact as facility leader Victor Sykes, adding a great performance to his other duties of screenplay writer, producer and director. Very impressive.
Overall, Boy Erased is a very strong addition to the ever expanding canon of LGBTQ dramas. I’m not sure that I can call it top tier, the film doesn’t feel quite as complete as it should do, but there is no doubting that it achieves the majority of its main goals in both performance and emotional response. We might not choose it as our Saturday night sofa entertainment, but the fact remains that we need stories and projects like this, on a much wider scale than they currently exist.