It’s a testament to Kidman’s impeccable delivery that the line can be read two ways: First, as a true declaration of maternal concern from a fervently Christian woman who’s been shocked to find out that her only son is gay, but also as a bullseye target for the audience’s anger. After all, those words strike yet another blow for Jared, who’s already drowning in guilt and confusion — if his mother believes he can fixed, then clearly there must be something wrong with him. They are cause for ire, for outrage that anyone could put their child through such a harmful psychological and even physical ordeal.
That duality is what makes Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut stand out in a genre that’s already been mined many times over, including this year, with Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Boy Erased deftly manages to unambiguously indict gay conversion programs, while lending a human face to those who turn to them in crisis. Rather than paint Nancy and her husband, Baptist preacher Marshall (Russell Crowe) as monsters, it seeks to understand the reasoning and convictions that drive them to such drastic measures, without sugarcoating the damaging effects those decisions have on Jared.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, Boy Erased uses flashbacks as a framing device for Jared’s story, slowly letting us in on experiences that shape the moment he’s experiencing in present time. (It’s a technique most recently employed by Beautiful Boy, released just a couple of weeks ago.) Through this meandering pace, we slowly start to get to know Jared as an Arkansas high school senior. He’s the kind of wholesome kid who goes to church every Sunday, works part-time at his father’s Ford dealership, plays varsity basketball, and unwinds with videogames or nights out with his cheerleader girlfriend, Chloe (Madelyn Cline). There’s a nice nod to ‘90s classic But I’m A Cheerleader in a makeout scene between Chloe and Jared in a car. As with Natasha Lyonne’s Megan Bloomfield, who looked supremely bored as her boyfriend cartoonishly shoved his tongue into her mouth, Jared is clearly not as into this PDA as Chloe is. Later, in college, he explores his burgeoning love for writing, and develops two significant relationships: one traumatic, the other sweet.
Those scenes are intercut with Jared’s current routine: days spent enrolled at a center called “Love in Action,” run by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), where he’s asked to fill out a “genogram,” tracing his family’s history with such “behavioral sins” as promiscuity, gambling, mental illness, abortion, and of course, same-sex attraction. He and his group — which includes the emotionally apathetic Jon (Xavier Dolan), who’s been through this too many times to count and is determined to succeed, and Gary (Troye Sivan, who also has an original song in the film), who coaches Jared on how to fake his way through the process — are constantly monitored, prevented from even going to the bathroom alone, and lectured on proper agro-masculinity by a Born Again ex-con, played Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea.
The catalyst for Jared’s predicament isn’t revealed until nearly halfway through the film: a violent encounter with his college crush and running buddy (Joe Alwyn) leads to Jared being outed. At first, he denies it, adamant that he has done nothing wrong (and indeed, he has not). But having this deepest fear spoken aloud — combined with the trauma of his first and only sexual experience — eventually leads to Jared’s tentative admission: “I think about men. I don’t know why. And I’m so sorry.”
After Marshall consults with church elders, the decision is made for Nancy to drive Jared to Little Rock for so-called treatment. And what’s striking is that initially, Jared is enthusiastic, even hopeful, that this could hold the key to his salvation.
It’s the exploitation of those insecurities, of that faith, that Edgerton appears to want to highlight. He plays Sykes as a reckless snake oil salesman — a man who doesn’t give a thought to the consequences of the bullshit dogma he’s preaching. And there are consequences. Even as Jared manages to wade through the program, others aren’t so lucky.
Hedges masterfully portrays his character’s painful expressions of doubt — in himself, in his faith, in his upbringing, and in his parents — bringing to life a person who’s been taught to believe that there’s one way to live (and believes in that path) only to realize that that he’s in conflict with it. Likewise, Kidman as Nancy (almost comically striking in a blonde bouffant, French manicure and rhinestones) and Crowe as Marshall do some of their best work, taking on characters that could have been deeply unlikeable, and fleshing them out into human beings struggling against the constraints of their beliefs in order to extend compassion and understanding to a son they love. Still, I wish Boy Erased had delved deeper into Jared’s personal feelings towards men, fleshing him out beyond just his woes. The film does that a bit in its later moments, especially in one lovely flashback, but it makes the character feel aloof for much of its run time.
Though the action takes place in the early aughts (there’s a passing shot of a very old iPod to date us), Boy Erased is more than aware of its current relevance. Gay conversion is a practice that’s still legal in 36 states, and has supporters in high executive office (Vice President Mike Pence, for one). The end-credits put forward the claim that nearly 700,000 young Americans have been subjected to such programs — a jarring statistic.
In the end, the conflict isn’t neatly and easily resolved. Jared shares his story and experiences with his parents, who come to terms with it in their own ways. The scene where Jared calmly affirms his identity, which he has by then embraced, to his father, inviting him to either accept him or not, is particularly powerful. In that sense, Boy Erased feels like a true conversation, a blueprint for the one parents who might feel aligned with Marshall and Nancy should be able to have with their children. And if they do, perhaps the Victor Sykes of the world may have less to work with.