Boy Erased is haunting and brilliantly cast, but something is missing

Joel Edgerton’s film starring Lucas Hedges, Troye Sivan, and Flea is the latest entry into the gay torture canon

This month, Patrik Sandberg is at Toronto International Film Festival reporting for Dazed on the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

A haunting and aesthetically banal entrant into the gay torture canon, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased takes its subject matter from Garrard Conley’s book Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family. The film tells the story of young Jared (Lucas Hedges) whose family has placed him into a Christian conversion therapy program for LGBT teenagers when he admits to harboring same-sex desires – a topic also explored in Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and which has gained some recent cultural relevance thanks to American Vice President Mike Pence’s championing of this punishing and humiliating practice of shaming, and at times, beating, the gay out of kids.

Important? Yes. Relevant? Unclear. It’s a mystery of what attracted Edgerton to the subject matter of gay conversion therapy, a Christian atrocity that has divided the church and is decried by every reputable psychiatric association. Because of the trenchant morality at play—the type best reserved for after-school specials and episodes of basic cable procedurals—the movie succeeds in spite of itself, demonstrating a deep empathy for not only these tragic figures subjected to abusive conditioning but also their religious families, bedeviled by doctrines that contradict their own compassionate instincts. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Jared’s parents Marshall (Russell Crowe, spitting and crackling) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman, literally dazzling in a variety of rhinestone sweaters) demonstrate with stores of repressed emotion the way some of the greatest of parental sins nevertheless come from a place of protective ignorance.

The ensemble performances do not disappoint. It’s startling to account for how many Australians and New Zealanders deftly summon Bible Belt accents. When Jared enters Love In Action, the program in question, he comes face to face with the bracing and antagonistic proprietor, in the form of a mustachio’d Edgerton, as well as a motley crew of LGBT kids in various stages of survival mode. There’s Sarah (Jesse LaTourette), an androgynous girl who Jared looks to as something of an emotional lifeboat, at a remove. When she separates from the group and is placed into a home with other girls, Jared catches her gaze with a wave of relief, only for her to walk away. It’s one of the many quiet moments of devastation in a movie that operates under a halo of constant oppression.

Xavier Dolan’s Jon, the darkest character in the film, lives under an oath of no physical contact until he takes part in a bible-beating, his own bruised face reminding us of the pernicious cycles of abuse many young adults have to contend with. It’s his second time in the program and he comes across desperate for it to work, as a way out of some truly devastating, unseen hell. Troye Sivan’s character, Gary, takes a glib, insincere approach to the treatment, playing along until he’s allowed to leave, cut off his family, and run for the nearest metropolis. One of the film’s greatest bits of casting is that of the rock icon Flea, as a reformed, tattooed drill sergeant brought in to quite literally scare the kids straight.

At the centre of everything is Hedges, whose restrained performance anchors the action while imbuing each experience with an air of resentful, swallowed skepticism. While he employs only the subtlest of fey mannerisms that belie his straight-passing exterior, he serves as a pitch-perfect cypher that draws us into the universal experience of coming of age in a world unready to tolerate what makes us unique. Once again, Hedges sets himself apart as one of his generation’s most compelling actors here.

“Hedges sets himself apart as one of his generation’s most compelling actors here”

Still, something’s missing. Maybe it’s Edgerton’s uncompromising sense of composition – carpeted church pulpits emit a suffocating quality that gives claustrophobic impact to the sequestered proceedings. The same strip mall desolation that’s been used to brilliant effect in films from Richard Linklater, Todd Solondz, and even Kevin Smith feels abjectly miserable under the bleak eye of cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man), but it’s that same, unforgiving quality that gives the film its originality. It lingers afterward, with the bitter imprint of a suppressed trauma. Edgerton proves himself a master of tone, even if that tone is borderline overbearing by design. If only a shred of joy could be found to convey Jared’s sense of self-actualization, even in such dire circumstances. Gays are famous for our ability to carve gallows humour out of grief, and this script, also by Edgerton, could have used some. While the message behind Boy Erased is righteous, like Russell Crowe breaking a sweat before a congregation, the preaching runneth over.

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