18-year old Jared Evans (Lucas Hedges) is heading off to college, unsure of who is is and most pertinently, where his sexual preferences lie. Growing up in a small town in Arkansas, he’s the son of the local reverend, with a cute girlfriend he’s expected to marry and a job at his dad’s car dealership waiting for him when he graduates.
So Jared being gay would throw a major spanner in the works of the life he has planned out for him.
When we join the story, Jared is already at what appears to be some sort of rehabilitation centre. He’s shorn of his personal belongings and taken to meet a group, mostly young men, who, we soon realise, are about to embark on the process of gay conversion therapy.
As ludicrous as the notion is, this is a true story. For Jared is based on Garrard Conley, a man who went through these very experiences and recounted his story – and those with his earnest but misguided family – in a series of articles, and later a book, upon which Joel Edgerton has based his film.
Edgerton himself plays the anti-gay-camp leader, a man who claims to have been cured himself by the process of sexual rehabilitation, with his apparent teachings based on Old Testament nonsense.
For the most part, stories are about characters learning, growing and changing, which is what makes Boy Erased such an intriguing premise. At the heart of this story is a boy being forced to change, when it’s those around him who need to learn and evolve.
Faced with what they believe to be wrong, it’s down to the those believing in antiquated religious belief systems to figure out how to reconcile those beliefs with their familial love.
Understated yet intense, Hedges is excellent in the lead, soaking up the lunacy around him, initially with naivety, and later with stoic defiance. Russell Crowe’s preacher father figure is on the nose, but really it’s Kidman as Jared’s mother who provides an emotional crux.
If there is any criticism to be had, it’s around the structure of the story. Told with a fractured narrative that darts between the various steps of the program and the events building up to Jared checking in, it’s as though Edgerton feared the story would be too pedestrian if he didn’t add some mystery around character motivation.
Yet it’s a fascinating story regardless of how it’s depicted. Certainly plot points land a little heavier with the most pertinent experiences depicted just moments earlier, but it’s also a modern storytelling technique that isn’t always required. As Morty Smith once declared, “we should start our stories where they begin, not start them where they get interesting.”
It’s a minor gripe for the editing sells the time jumps, and Edgerton’s direction, as it was with The Gift, is unfussy yet classy. And with Kidman, Crowe, Edgerton and Hedges on such fine form, Boy Erased remains engaging viewing regardless of the narrative trickery.