Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, is a strikingly nuanced examination not just of gay conversion therapy, but also the conflict that ingrained religious beliefs can inject into families. There’s no real villain in the picture. Instead, it’s just a collection of sometimes sad and sometimes monstrously and dangerously misguided people. I don’t want that to come across as a defense of anyone’s actions, seeing as how the film and its source material are based on real life, but the movie does a wonderful job of creating a moral complexity within its characters. It’s an astonishing accomplishment when you realize how easily Boy Erased could have taken an easier route through vilification and ugliness.
Lucas Hedges plays Jared (who’s oddly explicitly pointed out to be Garrard at the end of the film but is always called Jared within the plot), the son of a loving, doting mother (Nicole Kidman) and a seemingly understanding father (Russell Crowe). The film opens with Jared being sent to conversion therapy, with the bulk of the film cutting to what happens to him there and the road that led his family to decide to place him there. Early on, the therapy seems like a wholly supportive thing, but so does Jared’s family life, with everyone trying to do the “right thing.”
It’s almost a bit too perfect as it’s obvious that Jared’s place in all of this confuses him, as the therapy itself becomes off-putting and uncomfortable and he comes to find out that the length and intensity of the program aren’t what he was promised. Much of the film revolves around understanding. It’s the understanding within Jared that no amount of “therapy” will change who he naturally is; the understanding of his parents to wrestle with the choice of their religion or their son; and Jared’s understanding of who he is as a person. At the same time, the film touches at the dangers of denying your nature, of trying to change who you fundamentally are and the sheer unhealthiness of undertaking such a task. It’s in these moments that the film’s heaviest moments lie.
There’s nothing truly flashy about the film, which doesn’t really matter since it’s real strengths lie in its quiet humanity. If I can give one critique, it’s that its run time overstays its welcome just a bit, dampening the impact of a movie that might have had more of an emotional impact with some tightening. But this is perhaps a nitpick, especially for a movie that does so much right, from its message to its cast. Rated R or sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use.
Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre.