A mature central performance from Lucas Hedges anchors Joel Edgerton’s gay conversion therapy drama.
The word ‘gay’ is only mentioned twice in Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s second directorial effort. Victor Sykes (Edgerton, in front of the camera), the head therapist at conversion therapy centre Loving Action, includes the ‘G’ of LGBT in a list of perverse behaviours (ending with “transexual, sexual intellectual sexual”) that must be absolved. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the titular Boy who is fighting and rewriting his identity, later simply tells his father, a Baptist pastor, that he is gay.
Gay conversion therapy isn’t alluded to as a hypothetical nightmare, it’s a stone-cold bootcamp that follows a clinical method to set its students straight. Edgerton’s affinity for gruelling violence shows, as the film slaps you until you’re red-raw – disturbing impact lies in the brutality, physical and mental, that allows the film to exist as much more than an educational tearjerker about a cruel and archaic practice that still affects some 700,000 Americans today.
Hedges is earnest and afflicting as Jared (the renamed writer Gerrard Conley), a teenager who is battling his own sincere beliefs as much as the propaganda he’s making into mind maps. He dissects his “homosexual thoughts” and writes the names of people who have given him love and pain in a “Moral Inventory”. For a boy who cannot feel and must categorise emotions by method and belief, the actor achieves power and complexity in a mature and charged performance.
There’s an absurd sense of humour, an almost dystopian anxiety around the practice which swells with a playfully nervous score. Queer pop darling Troye Sivan lends both his angelic looks and vocals, allowing the gentle feeling of his ballad ‘The Good Side’ to ease the story’s birth. But this doesn’t last, as the narrative jumps from Jared’s first day of faux school to his lucid flashbacks of punishing affliction with unforgiving ease in music.
Completing the trifecta of troubled beautiful boys is, surprisingly, Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan. Through an effort of a southern twang and a pair of sad, sullen eyes, he anchors his role as a friend with the vulnerability of a passionate teen who’s still terrified of the possibilities of his own emotions. The balance in these relationships gives the film’s masculinity in crisis a depth that feels within reach, rather than just preaching a buzzword-friendly lesson in mental health that just follows a trend.
An alarming lack of subtlety allows the film to thrive. Instead of just tickling your tear ducts, the vindictive physicality of conversion therapy coupled with Edgerton and Hedges’ confidence and resolve throws a sucker punch that leaves an aftertaste of necessity, rather than sentimentality. Where Desiree Akhavan’s recent The Miseducation of Cameron Post has a free-spirited effervescence that could not and never would tame the carnal teenage girl, Boy Erased fights without lust and claws for survival in a stirring reality that hurts before it can heal.
Published 9 Sep 2018
Desiree Akhavan presents a confident, heartbreaking portrait of life inside a Christian conversion therapy camp.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased find different ways to confront this harmful practice.