Actors-turned-directors do not always have the command of cinematic technique that can be found in the work of auteurs with a different background. But these actor-filmmakers can generally be counted on to encourage and bolster compelling performances, and this is certainly one of the great strengths of Joel Edgerton’s second film as director, Boy Erased. Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and a uniformly splendid supporting cast — including Edgerton himself as a gay conversion therapist — deliver the goods in this heart-rending drama.
This is actually the second prominent film of the year to focus on conversion therapy. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the Sundance award-winner, opened over the summer to lackluster box office, perhaps because it offered a somewhat too fair-minded and benign view of the subject to stir an intense audience response. Boy Erased pulls out more emotional stops, but does it without stooping to cheap sentiment. The performances and the still-relevant subject (hello, Mike Pence!) promise more encouraging results for this movie when it opens later this fall.
The film is based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, which was adapted by Edgerton. (The characters’ names have been changed in the movie version.) It is told in the currently fashionable non-linear style, intercutting the experiences of Jared (Hedges) at the “Love in Action” conversion center with the experiences in high school and college that led him to be sent there by his parents. Although this technique has been overused in the last few years, it is handled quite effectively by Edgerton. The family scenes are rendered fairly and delicately. Jared’s father (Crowe) is an Arkansas pastor, and his wife (Kidman) is also a devout Christian, but they clearly love their only son, and the pic resists the temptation to caricature them.
Scenes in the conversion facility are also surprisingly textured. The therapist played by Edgerton seems to have some sexual identity issues of his own, though this is one element that might have been highlighted a bit more clearly. But the other characters at this center are sharply delineated and uniformly well acted. Rock musician Flea oozes menace as one of the harsh group leaders, and the other kids in the program — played by Xavier Dolan, Britton Sear, Jesse Latourette and others — add texture to the film’s portrait of this kind of indoctrination program. The kids respond in very different ways — some trying to fall in line, others resisting at moments, still others keeping their own counsel — and this seems truthful. There are some disturbing scenes showing the kids abused by the counselors, but there are other moments of surprising tenderness.
Hedges has demonstrated his skill in supporting roles in several other films (most notably Manchester by the Sea), but here he carries the entire show and is alternately frightened, bewildered and defiant. There isn’t a false note in his performance. Crowe captures the single-mindedness of a religious zealot, along with genuine concern for his son. Kidman’s role is even richer, for her journey involves not simply accepting her son but also recognizing her own subjugation in a male-dominated community. When she apologizes to her son for her complicity in bending to her husband and the other men in town, her confession is wrenching as both a gay-positive and feminist statement, timely on both counts without being overstated.
Jared’s relationship with his father is more complex and harder to resolve, and a special commendation should go to Edgerton for avoiding the obligatory hug that seems to be where the final scene is heading. He has given fine performances in such diverse films as Loving, Black Mass, Animal Kingdom and Kinky Boots, and he did a good job directing and starring in the nifty thriller The Gift. But Edgerton's career as a filmmaker rises to a whole new level with this sophomore effort. Boy Erased aims to influence the debate on gay conversion therapy that is still unresolved in many parts of the country, but it deserves praise not as a polemic but as a richly humanistic, emotionally searing drama that sticks in the memory.
Production companies: Anonymous Content, Blue-Tongue Films, Focus Features, Perfect World Pictures
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Britton Sear, Joe Alwyn, Flea, Cherry Jones
Director-screenwriter: Joel Edgerton, based on the book Boy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley
Producers: Steve Golin, Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, Joel Edgerton
Executive producers: Ann Ruark, Rebecca Yeldham, Kim Hodgert, Tony Lipp, Nash Edgerton
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Chad Keith
Costume designer: Trish Summerville
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Telluride Film Festival