In order to properly review Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased in the context of its release year, I need to say upfront that, though I was never able to review it, I was not a fan of Desiree Akhavan’s gay conversion therapy drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which hit theaters mildly after a buzz-filled bow at Sundance earlier this year. One could chalk this up to a tonal issue: Cameron Post was a watered-down But I’m a Cheerleader! that didn’t totally treat conversation therapy with the proper horror that it deserved, but it’s a lot more than that.
And while Edgerton’s film isn’t a totally perfect work, it is a much more effective portrayal of the horrors of religious fundamentalism on the developing mind of a young person who just happens to be slightly different than their community at large. We witness this in the true-to-life story of Garrard (here stylized as Jared) Conley (Lucas Hedges), as he’s sent to a day-camp meant to set him on the right path after a series of romantic and sexual experiences — some delightful, some harrowing — out him to his parents, including his father (Russell Crowe), a Baptist preacher and owner of a car dealership, who can’t accept the fact that his son might be gay.
One place where Edgerton succeeds where Akhavan fails is in the development of the film’s lead, as, where Cameron was an aggravating and deeply frustrating blank of a protagonist, Jared goes on a journey of self-discovery that is loaded with conflict, pain and ultimately acceptance of himself. You know what you’re getting when you cast a performer like Hedges in a role like this, and he delivers on all of the promise that he’s shown in his prior performances. His creeping fear and growing dissatisfaction with the program manifests itself in a number of ways that feel true-to-life, and his silence never feels empty: he’s observing the emotional horrors being inflicted on his fellow “patients” and processing all of it. That ensures the believability of the film’s ending, which sees an adult Jared publish his first major piece about his time in the program, which eventually helps to bring about an end to it.
He’s assisted by a series of incredible performers, including Crowe and Nicole Kidman as his initially “well-meaning” parents, Xavier Dolan and Troye Sivan as fellow kids stuck in the therapy group, and Edgerton himself as the head therapist at the program, whose specific combination of stupidity and banal evil feels recognizable but perhaps never this refined. Edgerton’s direction in Boy Erased is smooth and often goes without much notice, which means one can sink themselves into the story and the characters and inhabit their world.
There’s nothing fun about this program, either, and you’re not going to meet the cool and self-assured kids of Cameron Post, nor are you invited to laugh at their foibles and follies. These are damaged people made even more so by the “cure,” as reckoning with the fact that they’re in a society that hates them for simply trying to express themselves that thinks it is right to place them in an environment that brings in a fucking felon (played by Flea, of course) to teach them how to be manly, a scene which is initially played for chuckles before it becomes painfully and immediately threatening.
The tried-and-true trope of the “everybody in leadership positions at the conversion center is actually gay themselves” is kept entirely to a post-film epilogue card, thank Jesus, and this lets the center be interrogated for the trauma it wrecks on these kids without being undermined. It’s also grounded in a specific time period, and Edgerton, for someone who didn’t grow up in the South in the early Aughts, certainly knows the specifics of being a religious teen at that particular place and time, and it is roughly on the same level as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird at least in its accuracy at capturing the setting.
Boy Erased is not perfect: There’s the occasionally hoary moment that feels a little bit Oscar-clippy, but it’s in service of a message which, as others have pointed out, is extremely effective — that the locus of change in any scenario needs to be on those in our society who refuse to accept a person’s sexuality. “Fix your heart or die,” indeed.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.