'Boy Erased' Review: Lucas Hedges Devastates In Conversion Therapy Drama [TIFF]

Writer/director Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased starts off resembling a prison drama. Lucas Hedges' Jared Eamons shows up to Love in Action, a conversion therapy program designed to "cure" gay people, and must surrender his possessions. An orderly tells him they will call random numbers in his cell phone during the day. In addition, the original stories in his notebook might be subject to confiscation if they reflect any of the desires that the center attempts to purge.

Even as imposing as Love in Action is, the real prison in Boy Erased is Jared's own thoughts. In a remarkably subdued performance, Hedges shows that his character's mind, racked with guilt and shame his community has told him to feel, will be the site of the most important reckoning in the film. Jared is uncertain in how to navigate the cruelness of conversion therapy, either by giving in or resisting full stop. The hesitancy in responding externally plunges him deeper into his own mind and memory.

By revisiting formative moments in his sexuality, Jared begins to realize the disgrace and regret he associates with these instances does not represent an intrinsic, organic feeling. Others have placed this constructed guilt on him because they cannot reconcile his sexual orientation within an existing framework of masculinity or religion. None of this probing makes any attempt to justify the methods of conversion therapy, to be clear. While his harrowing experience at Love in Action does eventually lead Jared toward a more confident assertion of his true self, the psychological abuse that the center inflicts on vulnerable attendees leaves behind scar tissue.

There's a clear evolution over time in the performance of Jared, which features the normally charismatic Hedges functioning within a very small range of expressed emotion. He speaks in hushed, tentative tones because his provincially minded surroundings forced him to view his natural state as an aberration. With his cherubic face, often softly lit, Hedges makes for an excellent conductor of sympathy. That innocence only serves to amplify the many tragedies inflicted upon him.

(This next paragraph discusses sexual abuse – and features a minor spoiler.)

Hedges makes the naivete all the more searing in a scene where a college friend preys on his timidity and quietness. Picking up on repressed sexual desires, Joe Alwyn's takes advantage of Jared's greenness to satisfy his body's own lust – without seeking consent. The scene quickly turns brutal to watch as the bed creaks louder than Jared's muffled screams. Edgerton does not shy away from the terror of this moment, which is scarier than anything in his debut feature, the horror film The Gift. But it's less the event that proves so devastating and more the aftermath where Jared breaks down alone. To have his first sexual experience tied to such horrific disrespect of his personhood is traumatizing. The way Hedges clutches at his arms, as if his body no longer belongs to himself, hammers home the underrepresented shame of male survivors of sexual abuse.

Boy Erased might have been better served if Edgerton and the filmmaking team applied this hard-hitting approach to aspects of the film besides Jared's internal struggle to forge a path toward happiness and acceptance. Edgerton never shies away from the depravity of Love in Action, though the touch does feel a little light. His depiction of the center seldom moves beyond the obvious inhumanity of their outpatient-style "treatment." Beyond the emphasis on how the bogus hyper-masculinity of head therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton) warps their view of sexuality by linking it so directly to gender identity, the film lacks a real angle on the psychological distress. Showing more brutality might not have helped, but Edgerton requires the audience to fill in too many gaps under the assumption that they already consider gay conversion therapy to be bad.

At least Jared's parents, simplistically drawn as Edgerton makes them, represent something recognizable. Nicole Kidman's Nancy embodies the journey of the parent who, despite initial misgivings, comes around to force herself to understand her gay son. Though she might not be marching in a Pride parade any time soon, Nancy's glimpse at the harmful practices of Love in Action advances her willingness to empathize with Jared's struggle to be himself.

Russell Crowe's Marshall, on the other hand, epitomizes a more prideful stance. He's unwilling to budge from his religious convictions to reconcile his faith and his love for his son. Boy Erased takes his relationship with Jared to the brink, willing to wager viewer dissatisfaction to honestly portray the grim reality of the situation. Marshall, like many other parents, considers sacrificing the opportunity to be a part of his son's life in order to uphold his standards. (According to Garrard Conley's memoir on which the film is based, this actual relationship hangs on only by a thread.)

The post-conversion therapy conversations Jared has with his parents might feel more like worldviews talking to each other rather than people. But at least they achieve something and articulate a vision of gay dignity and compassionate allyship. Dismissing Boy Erased as simplistic, however, ignores the fact that only 14 states explicitly ban the practice of conversion therapy. There's still a clear need for this movie, warts and all.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10