After its screening at Toronto last year, we’re already familiar with the subject of Joel Edgerton’s sophomore as a director. Boy Erased is on familiar territory, the path trodden by Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, but don’t expect simply the same story with a boy at the centre. Familiar setting and similar experiences, yes, but there are huge differences as well, enough to make the two films interesting partner pieces.
Inevitably, it’s a film with a message, one that’s hammered home by the captions at the end. Perhaps the most shocking one is that it’s still legal in 36 American states for young people to be sent to what are known as de-programming camps, in other words places where their inherent sexual orientation is beaten, bullied and generally indoctrinated out of them. And many of these centres are run by the church, the establishment built into the very fabric of teenager Jared’s (Lucas Hedges) life. With a Baptist preacher for a father and a devoutly religious mother, he’s been raised in the strict teachings of the church but at college he discovers something about himself. He’s more attracted to boys than girls and, although his first experience with a man is nothing short of traumatic, he eventually admits his feelings to his parents. His father’s (Russell Crowe) decision is to send him to a church-run camp so that he can learn not just the error of his ways but also how to be “a real man”.
While Cameron Post was set a good 20 years ago, and hardly touched on family relationships, this is more contemporary and the effect on Jared’s coming out on his parents as a couple, and as individuals, is an important part of the story. The tone is markedly different this time round: it’s much more serious to the point of bleak, until the latter stages of the movie. Part of what characterized Cameron Post was its comparative levity and, while the subject was – and is – no laughing matter, its variation in tone was welcome and would have been so here. Instead, Edgerton falls back on heavy handed preaching, most of which comes from his own character, Victor Sykes, who is in charge of all the group sessions at the centre.
It’s a sombre look at a deeply sad, if not tragic, side of American society and much of the emotion comes from Jared’s relationship with his parents. His mother Nancy (an excellent Nicole Kidman) is all leopard print, bleached hair and elaborate manicures, but that Dolly Parton look conceals a woman who has to make an unbearable decision that results in a personal change. Russell Crowe is portly and outwardly genial as her husband, the preacher who, although he loves his son, cannot and will not accept his personal truth. Their final meeting in the film is heartbreaking, but not without hope. Hedges demonstrates yet again that he’s carved out niche for himself as the go-to actor for playing troubled young men in roles that demand nuance and subtlety. And he doesn’t fall short here, giving yet another superbly mature performance.
The film isn’t as mature as him, but it is moving, thought provoking and uncomfortable at times. It gets close to some of the complexities that go with the subject, again through the parents, but the scenes inside the centre are simplistic and don’t allow for enough shades of grey. Thankfully, it’s not lacking in emotional heft, most of which is delivered by Hedges, Kidman and Crowe. Edgerton himself remains one of the most watchable talents around on screen and his directing talents aren’t that far behind. It’s only a matter of time before the awards start coming his way.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Drama | UK, 8 February (2019) | Universal Pictures | Dir. Joel Edgerton | Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Lucas Hedges, Joel Edgerton and Joe Alwyn.