Boy Erased (2018)
Dir. Joel Edgerton; Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Joel Edgerton, Russell Crowe
[3 out of 4 stars]
In the three years since he arrived in Hollywood — with a performance in Manchester by the Sea (2016) that earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination — Lucas Hedges has established a history of playing traumatized and challenging characters. In Manchester, he portrayed a grieving teen whose father had recently died; in mid90s (2018), a violent bully to his younger brother; in Ben is Back (2018), a heroin addict. In Boy Erased (2018), the trend continues with Jared Eamons, the secretly gay son of two devoutly religious parents who send him to gay conversion therapy.
The film, which is based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, jumps around a bit in terms of chronology. It begins with Jared’s mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) dropping him off at the program. Right off the bat, there is something impenetrable about the place, called Love in Action: Nancy cannot get a tour of the facility, and Jared must immediately hand over all his belongings, including his phone, for monitoring. Therapist Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, doing triple duty as writer and director) runs the program. The film moves from the past to the present and back again to explain the events that led to Jared’s arrival at Love in Action, including the innocent night Jared spent with a man he met at an art show; his heartbreaking coming out to his parents; and difficult conversations with his father Marshall (Russell Crowe), a preacher.
The program begins in a somewhat positive manner, with Sykes telling his dozen or so attendees, “You are somebody! You are worth something!” Jared seems eager to be there; the program runs only until 5 p.m., and at dinner the first night he tells his mother he is excited. But the activities gradually become more heartbreaking, with Sykes yelling: “God will not love you the way that you are right now.” He orders the group to “fake it till you make it” and puts them through rigorous physical workouts to make them more “masculine.” He recommends that rather than continuing his studies in college (where the reading list includes The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lolita), Jared would be better off spending an entire year at Love in Action, rather than the agreed-upon 12 days. He believes that the group members’ sexualities were caused by their families because “You cannot be born a homosexual, this is a lie.” He orders each attendee to express their hatred for their parents and to map out the “sins” of their relatives in order to trace where their own transgression came from. It is distressing to watch, and we sympathize with Jared. He is confused about his sexuality, how he feels about it, and whether he wants to change at all. Nancy agrees with the treatment at first, although she clearly loves her son. She tells him, “I love God, and I love my son. For your father it’s a little more complicated.” Marshall, meanwhile, wants his son to remain in the program no matter what.
The cinematography, much like what is discussed in the film, is very clear-cut, divisive, black and white, literally. We often seen Jared in shadow, especially near the beginning of the film when he is conflicted about his sexuality. At many points, he is silhouetted against a lighter backdrop or only half of his face is illuminated, creating a stark, dramatic environment that emphasizes the weight of his shame and confusion. Edgerton uses light to set the tone or mood of a scene. For instance, Jared’s house is very dark; few lights are turned on so that the three characters appear to be emerging from the blackness. When Jared finally comes out to his parents, the kitchen is dark, symbolizing his shame. He tells his parents, “I think about men. I don’t know why. And I’m so sorry.” In contrast, when he spends the night with a man, the room is lit with a lovely, ephemeral pink glow. In the scene when Sykes suggests he remain at the program for a year, Sykes is at first shot from one sight, brightly lit with natural lighting. As he explains his reasoning, the camera is trained on Jared, slowly tracking around his face — from the bright, window-lit side to the darker, shadowed side, transitioning from happiness to horror. When we cut back to Sykes, he is seen from the darker side of the room, reflecting how his view in Jared’s eyes has shifted. Though simple, this cinematographic style reflects the divisive way in which the characters in this film approach sexuality: good and evil, light and dark, God and the devil, perfect and imperfect. Either God loves you or he hates you. At one point, a program attendee is beaten with the Bible to literally force the gay out of him. Sykes operate within a strict worldview (homosexuality is bad, heterosexuality is good) and forces the program participants to conform to his narrow, linear, black and white perception, which is reflected in the cinematography.
Edgerton’s score enhances the film and adds another layer to the straightforward cinematography. When the Eamons family wakes early and prepares for Jared’s departure, we don’t know yet what is happening or what its significance is. But delicate, mournful piano music, combined with the stark, darkly lit scenes, cues us into the significance of his departure. As Jared first walks into Love in Action, he could be excited, frightened, or confused; strong, intense violins and staccato piano notes create an air of suspense and severity that heightens the energy of the scene. While the situation has all the visual excitement of simply checking into a hotel, the score conveys nervous energy.
One of the best methods Edgerton has at his disposal to convey certain emotions or energies, more so than his score or cinematography, is his actors. Hedges has already proved himself to be capable of successfully portraying complex characters, and as his emotions evolve, every flicker or shade is reflected on his face — or carefully guarded behind his eyes, as the scene requires. Watching his face slowly deepen from blank curiosity into downright horror as Sykes suggests he remain in the program for a year rather than continue school is nearly comical in its clarity. He is so clearly disgusted and suddenly comes to realize how nefarious Sykes is. In Boy Erased, Hedges takes on a complicated cocktail of guilt, confusion, shame, curiosity, excitement, and anger, often dealing with more than one at once. At some points, we feel for him so deeply that I nearly began to cry. Kidman grapples with a similar mixture of emotions and seems to grow into her role as mother and protector as the film progresses, earning our empathy. Crowe’s performance is almost maddeningly impenetrable, which is, of course, perfect for his character; he barely speaks and yet his beliefs permeate the film. We know what he thinks of Jared and what his response will be before he is even asked. While the other characters in the film evolve, he remains nearly constant and unworthy of any sympathy on the part of the viewer.
Throughout the course of Boy Erased, we encounter rape and suicide as well as a collection young people grappling with deep-rooted shame, guilt, anger and confusion. Despite its lighter moments of clarity and resolve, the effect is dramatic and sobering. The film concludes on a somber note by reminding viewers that as of the film’s production, 36 states still allow gay conversion therapy. The troubles of other program members — Gary (Troye Sivan), Cameron (Britton Sear), Sarah (Jesse LaTourette) — are briefly alluded to, and the film retains the sense that there is much more left unsaid, stories still untold, and people who were not as lucky as Jared was.