(USA, 114 min.)
Written and directed by Joel Edgerton
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Joe Alwyn, Troye Sivan
There’s a moment in Boy Erased in which Nicole Kidman brought the house down at the Princess of Wales Theatre when the film premiered at TIFF earlier this fall. Kidman’s character Nancy rescues her son, Jared (Lucas Hedges), from a gay conversion therapy camp that she’d enlisted him in with hopes to straighten him out. As they escape, the camp’s leader and self-certified “therapist” (Joel Edgerton) comes running after them, convincing them to stop and correct their sins. Nancy, a devout Baptist, realizes that she can reconcile her faith with her love for her son. Nancy turns protectively and fiercely admonishes her foe with the sassiest “Shame on you!” decreed in cinema. The line comes straight from the heart as love gives Nancy a reality check and Boy Erased provides a pure, heart-breaking portrait of the bond between parents and their children.
The parents aren’t the focus of Boy Erased, but they’re arguably the best thing about it thanks to the deeply compassionate and empathetic performances by Russell Crowe and especially Nicole Kidman. Every parent needs to see this movie because of how sincerely and accessibly it conveys the complicated love between Jared and his parents. Many coming out stories don’t have the happy ending that Boy Erased finds in adapting Garrard Conley’s memoir about his experience being forced into gay conversion therapy by his parents. However, far too many people are still being placed in this arcane practice, and exponentially more people worldwide find themselves ostracized or estranged from their families (or worse) simply for being who they are.
Garrard’s story, or Jared’s story, gives the audiences a strong sense of the modest and conservative household in which his parents raised him. The Eamons are the embodiment of the prototypical “ordinary” American family, and Boy Erased provides early scenes of Jared growing up in a comfortable loving home, albeit one that, like many homes, puts kids into a routine that encouraged conformity. His father, Marshall (Crowe) is a Baptist preacher, so faith and religion are strong characteristics of the family home—as is upholding in public the values advocated by the church. But preaching also involves putting words into practice and when Jared confirms that he feels attracted to men, Marshall and Nancy’s reaction isn’t particularly Christian.
This revelation inspires Mr. and Mrs. Eamons to send Jared away to conversion camp and rid the perceived devil out of him before the neighbours notice something queer in the ‘hood. The ex-gay Christian camp is a brutally archaic exercise in which “therapist” Victor Sykes submits queer youths to dehumanizing exercises. Nothing in these practices makes any logical sense within a contemporary framework and Joel Edgerton’s performance as Sykes reminds audiences of the rigid conservatism that is all too prevalent as people cling to old ideals. The tests to which Sykes submits his “patients” are largely exercises in stereotyping with the young men and women acting out gender roles to extremes. (I.e.: he basically thinks deepening one’s voice and ordering a steak can cure gayness.) There is no mention of love, except in terms of one’s devotion to God, and the camp brews little more than violence, internalized shame, and self-loathing.
In addition to performing as the abhorrent Sykes, Edgerton makes a notable debut as a director. Edgerton, like many actor-directors, is most confident in letting the performers do the heavy lifting and Boy Erased succeeds primarily through the rich characters created by the stars. Stylistically, Boy Erased doesn’t necessarily align itself within a canon of queer cinema given that Edgerton’s relatively muted visual sense caters to a mainstream audience, while the narrative choices of the adaptation often focus, for better or for worse, on the parents’ acceptance of Jared’s homosexuality. On the other hand, Boy Erased is very effective as a mainstream story of love, tolerance, and empathy. It has the power to convey its clear and significant message to a wide audience.
Particularly significant is Edgerton’s choice for an inclusive ensemble. Boy Erased features many queer actors alongside Hedges in the conversion camp, most effectively Canadian director/actor Xavier Dolan and Australian pop star Troye Sivan as Jared’s fellow campers who react to the ordeal in vastly different ways and offer recognizable faces to which younger viewers may relate. Cherry Jones also provides a memorable cameo as a compassionate therapist who advises Jared that there is nothing for which he can be “cured” since there’s nothing “wrong” with him. Hedges finds a particularly strong co-star in Canadian actor Theo Pellerin (also in this year’s Oscar submission Family First), as Jared’s only intimate encounter prior to coming out. Their scene, an innocently chaste night of affection, is set to Sivan’s haunting original song “Revelation” and provides a key moment in Boy Erased’s message of love trumping hate.
This message brings us back to Nicole Kidman in a note-perfect performance as Nancy. Nancy accompanies Jared for the trip to camp and supervises him in the evenings once the daily abuse is over, and her devotion to her son encourages her to recognize the pain the camp causes him. Kidman, decked out in a platinum blonde ’do (Boy Erased features Kidman at peak wig game) and far too much make-up, uses every advantage of her character’s Stepford Wife propriety to challenge our expectations. She plays Nancy with courage and empathy, refraining from judging the character’s conservatism and always putting Mrs. Eamons’ love for her son as her top priority. One can’t help but read something of Kidman’s own life into the role, having faced her own difficulties in extricating her children from the suffocating power of a church prone to indoctrination. There is just a pure affection for the character, and a sense of compassionate understanding, that exudes in her relationship with Hedges and makes the film so powerful. It’s love that radiates from her and it only grows stronger by the film’s end.
Boy Erased opens in theatres Nov. 9.