Garrard Conley was an all-American teenager with a deep secret while growing up in small-town Arkansas as the son of a Baptist pastor and his obedient wife. Conley was gay and terrified of his parents discovering and disowning him as a result, and when he was outed against his will as a 19-year-old college student, he was forced to choose between being utterly abandoned by all his friends and family or entering gay conversion therapy that would ostensibly turn him straight.
The resulting bizarre experiences in the therapy program and the incredible twists that followed inspired Conley to write the memoir “Boy Erased,” which became an instant bestseller and has now become a great new film by the talented rising writer-director Joel Edgerton.
Starring three Oscar-caliber actors in Lucas Hedges (nominated for “Manchester by the Sea”), Nicole Kidman (winner for “The Hours”) and Russell Crowe (a two-time winner for “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind”), it is a movie that explores faith and sexuality as well as the ways in which a belief system can threaten familial bonds if it’s applied too rigidly.
The movie renames Conley as Jared Eamons and follows him at a small Christian college shortly after he breaks up with his longtime girlfriend due to their new long-distance status. Jared has always steered clear of anything more sexual than kissing her, ostensibly because as a preacher’s kid he’s determined to save sex for marriage, but in reality because he’s actually attracted to men.
He forms an extremely close friendship with another guy at school, until one night when his friend asks if he can just crash on the other bunk bed in Jared’s dorm room. After they exchange lingering looks, Jared wills himself to sleep, but is shocked in the middle of the night to find that his friend rapes him and then breaks down crying and saying he has to turn himself in for the incident and another same-sex rape he committed.
Already confused and afraid, Jared’s world falls apart when the other boy indeed turns himself in but claims that he had a consensual, long-running affair with Jared. Jared tries to deny the allegation of an affair but can’t find a way to articulate the fact he was raped by a man he was drawn to. With his highly conservative father threatening him to either accept a conversion-therapy program or risk losing his home, family and the right to inherit the family’s successful auto dealership, Jared hopes for the best and enters the program.
Run by a seemingly compassionate man named Victor Sykes (played by writer-director Edgerton), the program starts out with Sykes telling his charges they are flawed but still loved by God, and that he can help them break their homosexual attractions. But as the days roll on, Jared starts to notice all sorts of insidious aspects to the program and starts making a desperate effort to convince his parents to get him out.
The truly impressive thing about “Boy Erased” is that Edgerton has not stacked the deck like most issue-oriented films by depicting the religious conservative parents of Jared as over-the-top wrathful caricatures. Having grown up in Arkansas myself with plenty of friends from that kind of philosophical background, I can attest that Edgerton has done a masterful, thoughtful job of making Jared’s parents simply people who have had one way of thinking their entire lives and are having difficulty changing deep-rooted mindsets. This sense of subtlety and respect is a much more powerful means of imparting the film’s touching message of tolerance than a pointed polemic ever could.
Crowe and Kidman nail their performances, giving Jared’s parents a deeply conflicted yet caring relationship with their son that ultimately is transformative and loving. But Hedges is a revelation, marking himself as a true talent who should stick around for many years to come, and all three actors might be contenders for Oscars this season.
The film continues Edgerton’s impressive run as a director, which began in 2015 with the outstanding thriller “The Gift” and continued in 2017 with the moving historical drama “Loving,” about the interracial couple who convinced the US Supreme Court to allow mixed-race marriages. Edgerton has a powerfully empathetic approach to his topics and characters, even imbuing the insidious Sykes with a level of sympathy for a good portion of the film.
Amid an era in which Americans are too often divided by rigid beliefs on either side of the sociopolitical spectrum, “Boy Erased” sets an example of the power of film to create understanding and increase acceptance of those with whom we differ. It’s highly recommended for those looking for a thoughtful alternative to the bombast of most overhyped holiday fare.
“Boy Erased” Grade: A