To most, gay conversion therapy is a mythical, almost laughable prospect, surely long on its way out of civilised society. To a minority, including Garrard Conley, it remains a living nightmare. A survivor of the ex-gay program at Love in Action, Conley’s disturbing journey through the religious clinic’s attempts to “cure” his homosexuality at age 19 – published as Boy Erased – has quickly made its way to the big screen courtesy of writer-director Joel Edgerton. Edgerton also stars alongside Lucas Hedges’ Conley figure Jared Eamons and his God-fearing parents, played by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.
Having established himself behind the camera in 2015 with ultra-creepy horror-thriller The Gift, Edgerton again demonstrates his talent with a suitably subtle handling of Conley’s complex subject matter. The triumph of Boy Erased is the ease with which it lulls you into a false sense of security through the eyes of Jared, whose conflicted curiosity and overall optimism at the start of his therapy are potent enough that, just for a moment, you actually wonder whether this is going to be the hard-hitting film you thought it was.
Part of the reason for this is Victor Sykes, played by Edgerton, who resists the temptation to portray the cold L.I.A. head therapist as the core, Oscar-baiting villain of the piece. Instead, Sykes’ power as a misleading mouthpiece for overwhelming shame is pointedly propped up only by those desperate enough to become complicit in his actions, including not only the misguided parents, but the sons and daughters who stay within his abusive sphere. Like them, Sykes too is vulnerable to exposure.
Armed with crippling social stigma as Boy Erased‘s true enemy, Edgerton’s direction is haunting, stark and stifling; an evasive psychological prison from which the majority of Sykes’ subjects are unable to escape. When things start to unravel for Jared, Edgerton’s lurch from beauty to ugliness using the memories he is forced to revisit catches us well and truly off guard, while the unpredictable passive through intrusive through violent path of Sykes’ treatment both stirs our anger and breaks our hearts.
The result is an overwhelmingly empathetic experience, spearheaded by notable performances from Hedges and Kidman, whose characters almost unknowingly join forces in turning the tables on Jared’s mental and physical captivity. Following Lion (2016), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), and now Boy Erased, Kidman certainly appears to favour the mother whose children consistently encounter various forms of horrific trauma, while the fledgling career of Hedges – who can likely expect an influx of nominations – continues to go from strength to strength.
One of the highlights of VIFF 2018 and an early contender for the year’s major awards, Boy Erased is an emotional, thought-provoking picture that puts Edgerton firmly on the fast track to cinema’s directorial elite.
Boy Erased will be released in the US and Canada on November 2nd and 9th respectively, and will be screened in the UK early next year.