written by Joel Edgerton, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley
directed by Joel Edgerton
by Bill Chambers Even though it doesn't quite stick the landing, Joel Edgerton's The Gift was one of the more promising directorial debuts from an actor in recent years, but alas his sophomore feature barely ascends to heights from which to fall. Based on the memoir by Garrard "Jared" Conley, Boy Erased opens in the unpleasant dark of dawn as only-child Jared (Lucas Hedges, who either won or lost a coin toss with Timothée Chalamet) shares a deafeningly silent breakfast with his parents, Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Marshall (Russell Crowe, swollen to the proportions of a Charmin bear), before his first day at the ex-gay ministry Love In Action--a branding that oozes grim irony. Marshall is a Baptist preacher who owns a car dealership in the heartland; he is, in other words, awful, and when Jared returns from college less confident in his heterosexuality than ever, Marshall, scrambling to pre-empt any damage to his standing in the community, invites a couple of snake-oil salesmen into his home in the middle of the night to fix the problem. (As H.L. Mencken put it, "Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.") At this rehab centre, the residents are stripped of their possessions and their identities are tamped down in sexless white shirts. Activities include charting the sinners on one's family tree and, despite the place being co-ed, sorting the boys on a descending scale of manliness. It's all presided over by Victor Sykes (Edgerton himself; what does it say that Jared's three biggest adversaries are played by Australians?), a tacit closet case who strives for avuncular beneath the harsh judgments, leaving the dirty work to the visiting "success story" Flea inhabits with impressive rancour.
Conversion therapy is one of the worst ideas humanity has ever had and its perpetrators should probably be capitally punished. The problem with Boy Erased is that Jared is on the knife's edge of becoming an audience surrogate à la Kevin Kline in Cry Freedom, or any white actor in any American film about the Other. During his stay at Love In Action, Jared could be said to observe more cruelty than he directly experiences, including a disgusting bit of revival-tent pageantry where the family members of one patient are invited to literally thump him with the Bible. Still, the blood never boils the way it should in scenes like this, which I'd attribute to their being filtered through a present but ultimately safe observer. While Jared enters the program wanting to placate his parents and God, he's maybe less contrite than he is curious in the manner of an aspiring reporter, and he taps out after two weeks because his will is too strong; Conley's story turned out to be good exposé journalism, but it isn't cinema. Arguably the most disturbing moment in Boy Erased is a flashback to Jared getting raped by his college roommate (David Joseph Craig)--and that's problematic, because Jared winds up more viscerally tortured by an ally. Star-fuelled and studio-backed, Boy Erased has perhaps squandered a plum opportunity to inspire real change--conversion therapy, we're told in postscript, is still legal and practiced in 36 states, so it's a matter of some urgency--by treating the destructive impact of young innocents forcibly repressing their true sexual orientation or gender identification too intellectually, too goddamn politely. (Even the inevitable suicide happens off camera, once Jared is back at home.) The Day After didn't shy away from radioactivity and Boy Erased shouldn't have, either. It's surprising, since the Edgerton who directed The Gift was a perfectly good, nay, promising exploitation filmmaker. Programme: Special Presentations