(The Middleburg Film Festival ran October 18-21 in Middleburg, Virginia. HtN Lead Critic Chris Reed was there and per his norm, will have a ton of reviews and interviews coming your way. Stay tuned…)
Based on Garrard Conley’s eponymous 2016 memoir, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased follows the story of a young man compelled to attend gay-conversion therapy after he is outed by a college classmate. Jared has grown up in a deeply conservative religious family, expected to follow his parents in faith and mission. When his personal trajectory deviates from the norm, those parents act – according to their beliefs – to save him from himself. The consequences are unpleasant.
This is Australian actor Edgerton’s second feature as director (his first was The Gift, in 2015). With remarkable emotional reserve, he walks us through material that could quickly descend into histrionics, maintaining his cinematic cool as he explores the complex drama with sharp observational skills. Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) movingly plays Jared as a vibrant – if confused – soul, in need of genuine empathy, struggling against a system that offers only disapproval. Given that the film roundly condemns the widely debunked therapy at its center, Edgerton nevertheless refuses to reduce Jared’s antagonists to caricature. It is to the film’s great credit – and is, in fact, its main thesis – that everyone suffers when we deny human nature.
Still, not everyone suffers equally, and there are villains here, especially the pastor in charge of the process, played by the director, himself. Jared’s parents, played by Edgerton’s fellow Australians Russell Crowe (The Nice Guys) and Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled), also come across as real people who love their son yet are prisoners of their ideology. Kidman, especially, delivers a shattering performance as she increasingly questions what is being done to Jared. It’s Hedges who truly shines, however, as Jared undergoes true growth from pawn to fully fledged adult in charge of his own decisions.
The film begins with home-video footage of Jared as a young boy (actual video of baby Lucas), adored by mom and dad, before we cut, brutally, to a close-up of the back of his 18-year-old head on the day he is to enter therapy. It’s a great visual metaphor for the journey to come, the viewer’s first glimpse of the protagonist offering no hints to his true feelings. Raised a devout Christian, Jared has no reason to doubt that he is, in fact, a sinner. By the end of the story, he will have found himself, and will no longer need to hide. In a world – and a country – ever taking two steps back after three steps of progress, let Boy Erased remind us of what is lost through self-abnegation, and what is gained through unconditional love.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)