It appears that 2018 is shaping up to be a big year for memoir-based films about young white men and their complicated relationships with their parents. Just at the Toronto International Film Festival, we got Beautiful Boy, Ben is Back, and Boy Erased; the last of these, directed by Joel Edgerton and starring Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, and Nicole Kidman, seems to be the most complete, narratively satisfying film.
Hedges puts in a confident, self-assured yet vulnerable performance as Jared, a young gay man from a deeply religious Southern Baptist family. After being outed to his strict preacher father (played by a paunchy, emotionally repressed Russell Crowe), he is given a choice that isn’t really much of a choice at all. At the end of the day, his parents don’t see a way for him to live under their roof and be gay, so he either needs to commit himself to change or cut ties. So he enrolls in a pray the gay away conversion program, and that’s where things really start to get rough.
Because what’s immediately obvious to the audience and quickly dawns on Jared himself is that gay conversion therapy is abuse. It employs tactics that range from isolation, shaming, emotional manipulation, dehumanization, and even physical violence.
These are all carried out by a staff of religious hardliners led by Joel Edgerton’s Victor Sykes and, interestingly enough, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, who are seemingly unaware of the immense damage they are doing despite the clear indication that most if not all of these men are gay themselves.
At first, Jared faces the program with stoic resignation — this is something he just has to get through, and then he’ll be able to carry on with a normal life. His growing disillusionment with the program is at once both heartbreaking and empowering. It’s heartbreaking because he has to come to terms with both the fact that his parents who are supposed to love him unconditionally sent him somewhere dangerous to be fixed, and the simple truth that he cannot be fixed. But it’s empowering because at some point he realizes that he doesn’t actually want to change who he is, and finds the strength to free himself from a toxic situation.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the compelling relationship between Jared and his parents. His father is all fire and brimstone, rigidly black and white in his thinking, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever be able to fully accept his son as a gay man. But despite this, he is not portrayed as the villain of the piece.
Even though he is faced with the seemingly obvious decision of whether or not to support his child, Crowe does an excellent job of showing him try to find a way for his ideology and his relationship with his son to coexist. We don’t ever quite give up hope on him, even while we find his actions incomprehensible and insupportable.
His mother is a different story entirely. Played by Nicole Kidman in full mama bear mode, we see her desire to support her son, her quiet disappointment at her husband’s choices, and her anger at herself and guilt for ever having allowed herself to be convinced that gay conversion therapy was right for her son. It’s not a melodramatic performance by any means, but there are certainly a lot of warring emotions that Kidman artfully allows to rise to the surface.
This dynamic is at the heart of the film. We see an inherent conflict between religion and morality — where in a perfect world these would be in alignment, in practice the former is frequently perverted into something that flies in the face of the latter. Ultimately, parents have a duty to do right by their children, and asking them to change something as fundamental to their identity as who they love and are attracted to is cruel.
Boy Erased features excellent performances from an all-star cast (Hedges and Kidman in particular look to be gunning for Academy Award nominations), and its frank depiction of the gay conversion programs refuses to shy away from their inherently brutal, ugly nature while still managing to tell an uplifting and inspiring story of a gay young man learning to accept and fight for his identity.