'Conversion therapy' & searing drama
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Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, "Boy Erased" is an emotionally riveting new film about a young man in Arkansas, a pastor's son, who goes to a conversion therapy camp in order to avoid being shunned by his family and friends. Lucas Hedges plays Jared Eamons, a seemingly all-American kid who's athletic, has a girlfriend, but who's harboring a secret: he's attracted to men.
Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, two fine actors, co-star as Nancy and Marshall Eamons, Jared's parents. Marshall is a church pastor, and Nancy is the loving and dutiful wife who always does what's expected of her. Marshall and Nancy aren't bad people. They genuinely love their son, and only want what's best for him. They pray to the Lord and ask for strength and guidance. They honestly believe that what they're doing is the right thing to do. They mean no harm, and are unable to see that what they're doing is the worst possible thing for their son.
"I had heard of conversion therapy, which sounded like a religious institution for curing homosexuality," director-screenwriter Joel Edgerton told the Bay Area Reporter. "What I came out with after I read the book was an emotional connection to a family. They loved each other and went through conflict for no reason at all."
Edgerton felt particularly sympathetic for the story's young protagonist. "Imagine being told by your parents, your two greatest heroes, that you need to fix something that's wrong with you," Edgerton said. "That's horrible."
Scenes at the conversion camp comprise the bulk of the film. When he first enters the program Jared is somewhat enthusiastic, confident that he can be "cured." But as the program's draconian techniques are revealed to him, he begins to rebel. As he slowly comes to realize that his sexuality cannot be changed, he looks on in disgust as he sees how others in the program are being treated. In one particularly disturbing sequence a young man is forced to kneel before a coffin as his campmates line up one by one, beating him. The young man is also thrown into an ice-cold bath in front of everyone. Soon after, he commits suicide.
Jared eventually decides that he's had enough and walks out of the program with the help of his mom, who comes to see the error in her ways. Jared's father isn't as quick to come around, but Jared delivers an ultimatum. He tells his father that unless he's accepted for who he is, his dad will lose him forever.
Lucas Hedges is superb in the lead role. At first he plays Jared as a confused, frightened young man who doesn't know what to do. Two flashback sequences, one in which he is raped by a college classmate and another in which he experiences a brief flirtation with an artist, underscore his struggle to understand and accept his sexuality. But as the story progresses the audiences sees Jared come into his own and find his voice. Hedges beautifully plays the evolution of this character.
Director Edgerton co-stars as Victor Sykes, the man who runs the conversion camp in spite of his lack of credentials. Sykes is neither a pastor nor a therapist.
"For years I played characters that I theoretically disagree with," Edgerton said. "Serial killers, corrupt cops. Going to work to do the wrong thing is kind of exciting. You can't judge your character. You have to side with your character from action to cut."
Edgerton explained why he made the film. "I want people to be able to look into a window of a very unnecessary and backward practice," he said. "I'd like the film to raise awareness, affect change, and open people's minds. I want young people to know that they're not the only one, I want them to see Jared's story and see that there's a future."
"Boy Erased" opens on Fri., Nov. 2, at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema, expanding to the AMC Kabuki and Alamo Drafthouse on Nov. 9. Joel Edgerton will do a Q&A at the Embarcadero on Sun., Nov. 4, after the 2 & 2:30 p.m. shows.