'Boy Erased' review: Sensitivity, compassion in understated drama about conversion therapy
"Boy Erased," starring Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Lucas Hedges, follows the true story of a Baptist family struggling with homophobia. USA TODAY
Moving, compassionate film about the experience of a college student (Lucas Hedges) at a gay-conversion camp. Smart, sensitive and never exploitative.
During a session at the conversion-therapy camp that serves as much of the background for “Boy Erased,” we see a group of young men going through essentially a masculinity boot camp. Don’t sit with your legs crossed, they are told. Watch your hand movements. Stand this way, not that way. It’s horrifying, sad and darkly comic all at the same time.
Those moments are among the most striking in the film, which is directed with tasteful restraint by Joel Edgerton. Scenes like those, which could go wildly broad or horror-movie dark, do neither. Instead the movie, based on Garrard Conley's memoir, unfolds with a graceful kind of starkness.
Arkansas college student Jared (Lucas Hedges) is our entry into this world. After he is sexually assaulted by a male friend on campus, he is outed to his parents. Marshall (Russell Crowe), his father, is a Baptist minister who runs a car dealership; mom Nancy (Nicole Kidman) listens to country music and appears generally happy to do whatever her husband says. When he decides the best course of action is to send Jared to the eerily named Love in Action, she acquiesces.
Edgerton also plays Victor Sykes, who serves as director of the camp. Initially, Victor seems wildly misguided — homosexuality is a choice, he opines — but as Jared gets further into treatment, his behavior slides deeper into scary abuse, both mental and physical. One young man is beaten with Bibles in a particularly disturbing moment.
As a director, Edgerton's strength is his economy. He doesn't reach for the florid or the melodramatic, even when opportunity arises. Instead, his approach is quiet and encompassing. At Love in Action, Jared notices the small details, and so do we: All the participants dress in blank white shirts. During a break, Victor slips outside and grabs a smoke, which seems oddly incongruous. The men and the boys attending sessions take quick glances at each other and look away, afraid to lock eyes for more than a second.
Hedges is perhaps the ideal actor to play Jared. His non-showy performance perfectly matches Edgerton's understated direction. Jared is a young man who never quite opens up, for obvious reasons, and Hedges makes that guarded quality quite affecting. When he relaxes with friends (or a potential romantic partner), a viewer relaxes, because the character is finally allowed to loosen up a bit.
More than simply a look at the conversion therapy, the film examines the bonds between parents and children. The film doesn't condemn Jared's parents; Nancy ultimately emerges as something of a hero, ultimately coming to her son's rescue. The characters are treated with great compassion. Even Marshall isn't made out to be a villain, which illustrates the kind of humanity found in this film.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8849. Twitter.com/randy_cordova.
- 'Girl in the Spider's Web:' Where's Rooney Mara when you need her?
- 'Burning' is fueled by rage, heartbreak
- You'll have a bloody good time at 'Monster Party'
- Spellbinding 'Suspiria' is impossible to ignore
‘Boy Erased,’ 4 stars
Director: Joel Edgerton.
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton.
Rating: R for sexual content including an assault, some language and drug use.
Note: At Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square.
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★