Three years after impressing audiences with his directorial debut, The Gift, writer/director/actor Joel Edgerton has again stepped behind the camera for his latest project, Boy Erased. Whereas The Gift was a tense, razor-sharp psychological thriller based on his own concept, Edgerton (who claims sole screenwriting credit on Boy Erased) has adapted his latest film from the non-fiction book of the same name by Garrard Conley, based on the author’s own experiences in a Christian gay conversion camp.
Lucas Hedges stars as Jared Eamons (based on Gerrard Conley), son of car dealer & Christian preacher Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman). Living in the heartland of America, Jared is a well-liked and popular boy who plays for his school’s basketball team, dates a cheerleader and is preparing to head off to college & one day inherit his father’s car-dealership. However, Jared’s idyllic life if shattered when a devastating incident leads his parents to find out he has homosexual feelings. Due to their deeply rigid beliefs they send Jared to Love in Action, a gay conversion centre.
Edgerton constructs his film using a duel narrative; we first see Jared in the present day leaving his home and travelling with his mother to attend the Love in Action gay conversion course, run by Victor Sykes (Played by Joel Edgerton). These scenes are than periodically intercut with Jared’s experiences tentatively exploring his sexuality through high school and college and the fallout after it is revealed to his parents.
Joel Edgerton approaches his characters with a huge amount of empathy. Whereas Crowe’s preacher could have potentially been a one-dimensional evangelist, Edgerton paints him as a man who loves his son, painfully tearing at the seams of his deeply held beliefs. Kidman’s house-wife is not a subservient devotee to her husband but a strong-willed character whom prizes her son’s happiness above all else. Both Crowe and Kidman are on excellent form here, especially Crowe who delivers his finest performance in years.
Hedges plays Jared as an incredibly strong figure. As he undergoes emotionally abusive torture (and witnesses physically abusive torture) at Love in Action, all designed to break his character down, Jared finds strength. Hedges slowly reveals himself through the film, as his boy language goes from inverted and fidgety to assured and confident, delivering his final speech with a supreme level of resolve.
With The Gift Edgerton showed himself to be a fine director and again in Boy Erased he exercises the skill of a classical yet talented filmmaker. Where Edgerton’s skills as a director really make an impact is in his use of detail to subtly convey character, tone and tension. Marshall Eamon’s large belly and habit of peering over the glasses placed at the end of his nose emit the image of a kindly and welcoming father, a stark contrast to the actual immovability of his character.
Nancy Eamon’s large blonde curly hair and heavily mascaraed eyes make her look like a classic southern bell (a late 1950’s Elizabeth Taylor immediately came to mind), an image of old-fashioned values which contrasts to a mother that will go to extreme lengths to love and protect her son. Victor Sykes’ sharp military style haircut and neat moustache are the image of a regimented man, the commander of this de-facto boot-camp come prison, who fervently opposes homosexuality as the work of the devil (The Freddie Mercury moustache is a bit of a giveaway as to any true feelings he may be suppressing).
Unfortunately, Edgerton’s skills as a director are not quite matched by his work as a screenwriter. His decision to use a duel-narrative has the effect of giving the film a disjointed quality. Just as the tension of Jared’s horrifying experiences in the conversion course start building, we are pulled away from this claustrophobic space to a long flashback scene, almost all of which could have done with some editing to tighten their length. At 114 minutes long, the film felt over-long. Edgerton also has a habit of giving his characters dialogue which abruptly states their feelings; with a cast as strong as this, they can be trusted to do the emotional heavy lifting.
Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased tackles it’s difficult subject matter with an admirable level of empathy and is aided by standout performances from it’s four principle leads. However, a tighter edit and further work on the structure of the script could have helped enhance the emotional impact of the film.
Boy Erased will be on general release across the UK from Friday 8th February.