Arts movie review

No longer erased

An affecting telling of a true experience with conversion therapy

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Theodore Pellerin and Lucas Hedges star as Xavier and Jared in 'Boy Erased.'
Courtesy of Focus Features

Boy Erased
Directed by Joel Edgerton
Screenplay by Joel Edgerton, based on the book by Garrard Conley
Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton
Rated R, Now Playing

Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased, the movie follows the life of Jared (Lucas Hedges), a college student and son of a Baptist priest, as he wrestles with the conflicts between his sexuality, religion, and family. After Jared’s homosexuality is exposed to his religious parents, they send him to a conversion therapy camp called Love In Action, hoping that he will change. The story centers around Jared’s life, weaving between his journey with conversion therapy and flashbacks of his prior formative experiences.

These flashbacks can be confusing, especially at the beginning, but they prove essential to controlling the flow of the movie. The film opens to Love in Action — we see the camp through the eyes of Jared, an optimistic teenager seemingly willing to change himself for the sake of his family, with naive hope that conversion therapy might work. The ridiculousness of the lessons taught by the leader of the camp, Mr. Sykes (Joel Edgerton), becomes almost humorous, especially as we see Jared laughing at the distasteful jokes and obediently listening. Accompanied by glimpses into Jared’s past picturesque family life, the beginning of the film seems light in a way that one would not expect, since it aims to tackle the difficult issue of conversion therapy.

However, there is an overall sense that the movie’s tone will take a turn. The shots are colored with cool tones at the beginning and continue throughout the movie. The sparse usage of music creates moments that are quiet and bring focus to the actions and dialogues between characters. The overall feeling the audience receives is calmness, but to the point where it is unsettling, especially as we begin to see how unreasonable the conversion therapy camp is.

The woven moments at Love in Action and Jared’s past memories prove most powerful with the insertion of the scene where Jared is raped in college, which transforms the tone of the film into something much darker and more serious. When Jared speaks to his rapist after the scene, he seems shockingly calm, but Hedges’s performance allows Jared’s inner anger, sadness, and fear to show without verbal expression. Throughout the movie, Hedges creates subtle emotional buildups that accumulate into bursts of anger, most notably towards his parents when they hear about his homosexuality, and towards Mr. Sykes later on in the film.

The exchanges between Jared and his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) reveal their closeness even when they are not in agreement about his sexuality. Although the film could have provided more insight into the process Jared’s parents go through to find acceptance, the characters are successful in portraying the complexities of love and family. Through Kidman and Crowe’s acting, we feel the pain of Jared’s mother and father, in a way that seems unselfish and shows that they are genuinely confused about what the right course of action is.

The film perhaps spends less time discussing Jared’s family life because the characters at Love in Action are also complex and provide further insight into the wide scope of perspectives and experiences with sexuality and religion. Jared meets Gary, who has learned to “play the part,” and Cam, who struggles with conversion therapy as well as family issues. Another peer appears to be brainwashed by the idea that conversion therapy will work for him. Each of these supporting roles gets spotlighted and even in these short moments, they create lasting impressions, which is a true testament to the directing of this film and its organic incorporation of such diversity.

The film is excellent at creating intensity because the shots are often simple and clean while the sound is limited to the dialogue, effectively conveying the characters’ raw emotions. Especially impactful is a moment when, pressured by Sykes to express hatred for his father, Jared responds, “Why do I have to be angry?” This simple but explosive question captures the film’s potent message — that mutual love and acceptance are possible even when there is not a perfect understanding between two people. The end of the film cuts to four years after Jared has left Love in Action, and although he and his father still seem stiff and uncomfortable with each other, there is a sense of hope that the father is ready to begin to accept his son.

Boy Erased is filled with passionate performances by the actors, is beautifully shot, and is genuinely thought-provoking. This film is successful in starting a dialogue surrounding conversion therapy, parenting, and acceptance. Without preaching about what is right or wrong, the movie exposes how horrifying conversion therapy can be and its tolls on family and beliefs. That being said, the movie spends so much time exploring characters’ conflicts that the condemnation of conversion therapy is not as highlighted as it could be. The film addresses how difficult but worthwhile it is to love, whether it concerns romance, family, or even oneself. That is enough reason to go see this film. Attempting to understand different perspectives and lives is the first step to acceptance, and Boy Erased helps us take that action.