Film Review: Boy Erased

The cruel racket of gay-conversion therapy, still legal and practiced in three-quarters of America today, gets an overly polite rattling in this well-meaning but lukewarm adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir.
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There is a heartbreaking little moment in Lady Bird—almost an afterthought to the main storyline—when Lucas Hedges profoundly flunks his test as Saoirse Ronan’s first boyfriend and tearfully acknowledges to her (and himself) that he’s homosexual.

Now, in Boy Erased, Hedges has moved on to the deeper portion of the pool to play the gay son of a Bible-thumping Baptist minister (two strikes) who is talked into a gay-conversion program that will bring him out of “this phase” he is going through.

It doesn’t—and won’t—but the point is mildly made in this muted film version of Garrard Conley’s same-named memoir, which in itself is testament that he did not stay erased and, indeed, got a survival book out of his cruel queer-brainwashing. 

Joel Edgerton produced, directed and adapted the film—much too gingerly and gently to have the powerful impact that it should. Plus, he plays the Grand Inquisitor charlatan who brays over his desperate charges, bullying them into heterosexuality.

This is Edgerton’s second time out as a feature-film multi-hyphenate. Three years ago, he produced/directed/wrote The Gift. In both movies, he is a menace driven to mad acts by a secret he has nursed for decades. In The Gift, he goes into demented overdrive, avenging a festering high-school offense by Jason Bateman. Here, The Big Reveal comes in the film’s closing footnotes, and it comes like a kick in the head.

Edgerton also hired a couple of fellow Aussies to play the boy’s Arkansas parents—Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman—and both of them are unsurprisingly excellent at playing characters more than 10,000 miles away from their real respective roots.

The time is 2004 and the place cynically tipped by a license plate (“Arkansas—Land of Opportunity”) on the car whisking Hedges’ character off to a “Love in Action” conversion camp, which, after consulting church elders, his zealot dad prescribes to cure this “affliction.” The experience has the opposite effect. The harder the therapists bear down, the faster he discovers the authentic truth about himself and accepts it.

Crowe, who made his international breakthrough as a twenty-something gay in a mate-race with his widowed dad in The Sum of Us, has evolved into a bloated, biased parson intolerant of his son’s pursuit of happiness. Grudgingly, he opens to change.

Through sheer skill and empathy, Kidman manages somehow to dominate the film in a supporting role—the belligerent mom who initially is stopped at the door of the conversion camp and literally has to fight to extract her son from it. Brava, Nicole! 

Hedges, Oscar-nominated for his support in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, has made considerable star progress in the two years since. Currently, he has four new films in the can and is now on Broadway in Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery. Here, as the Boy Erased, he manages (as far as the script allows) to be a fairly vibrant figure, holding the heart and focus of the film with confidence. His character’s sexual experiences run the gamut wildly from a placid handholding all-nighter with a gay artist (Théodore Pellerin) to a savage sodomizing by a college “friend” (Joe Alwyn).

Cherry Jones brings kindness and gravitas to the film as the doctor testing Hedges’ testosterone levels, and pop star Troye Sivan makes a credible film-acting debut as a fellow camper who attempts to scare Hedges straight, advising, “Fake it till you make it.”

The family name is not dragged through this movie mud. Garrard Conley has been turned into Jared Eamons, but he did show up—with Mom in tow—for the film’s unspooling at the Toronto Film Festival. Dad stayed behind. Church business, y’know.