Boy Erased

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Boy Erased
"This is, as a whole, a finely crafted piece of cinema which handles its explosive subject with great delicacy."

The UK and Scottish governments are currently developing legislation to outlaw conversion therapy aimed at 'curing' people of being LGBT. In the US, however, it is still legal to practise it on minors in 36 states and it is estimated that 700,000 people have gone through it. There have been a number of suicides associated with it, such as that of trans teenager Leelah Alcorn in 2014. In 2004, Garrard Conley was placed in the Love In Action conversion programme by his parents. Boy Erased is a fictionalised version of his story.

It begins as Jared (Lucas Hedges) enters the facility. He's parted from his mobile phone and journal, presented with what initially seems like an arbitrary set of rules; his worried mother (Nicole Kidman) is told she can pick him up at five. The two are staying in a nearby hotel. Even there, they have to follow rules. Talking about what happens inside the facility is strictly forbidden.

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Because we don't know what's happening and are looking everywhere for clues, we're in a similar situation to Jared himself. He knows what the programme is supposed to do for him - he's volunteered for it, having been raised to believe that life as a gay man would inevitably be unhappy and lead to an early death from AIDS - but he has no real idea what it will involve. Gradually his story is pieced together in flashback. The girlfriend with whom he tried to make it work. The encounter in college that went hideously wrong. The friend who invited him to stay the night and told him that nothing had to happen if he didn't want it to. Jared hasn't actually done the things that everyone assumes he has - he is, after all, only 19. He hasn't actually experienced the pleasures for which he is expected to pay.

Both the film and the programme work because they start out gently, making us think that we can do this, this isn't so bad; and gradually they manipulate the psyche. Seemingly pointless exercises involving the drawing of charts or chanting phrases create an atmosphere in which Jared begins to doubt core ideas about who he is. It's immediately apparent that some of the other teenagers are taking it harder. With very little screentime, Jesse LaTourette shines as the troubled Sarah, the more haunting because we never really learn what becomes of her. Britton Sear is sympathetic as Cameron, a boy bullied for his weight as well as his sexuality by the very people who are supposed to be helping him. There's a lot of talk about acceptable gender presentation alongside the rest. This doesn't seem to be so much about suppressing transgender expressions as about teaching girls to be demure and submissive whilst trying to force every boy to be tough and 'manly' - even in the way he stands. This extends to physical training that borders on outright abuse.

The systematic breaking down of the young people, who are kept there for as long as those in charge think is necessary - way more than the two weeks Jared initially thinks he's signing up for - is paralleled by a breakdown in the fa├žade presented by those who are supervising them, with aggression gradually increasing over time in a manner reminiscent of the Stanford Experiment. Again, director Joel Edgerton is restrained; it is what is implied as much as what we see that really chills.

Lucas Hedges is quiet but centred in the lead, his calm gaze letting the viewer explore what's happening around him without being told what to think, and enabling him to create a much bigger impression on the few occasions when he lets his emotions show. Kidman is excellent in support, doing something that's very different from anything we've seen from her before (and if she seems unrealistically glamorous alongside her staid preacher husband, Conley's real parents make a similar impression). Playing that husband, Russell Crowe also explores new territory and gives a character who could easily have been unsympathetic a depth and vulnerability that remind us this is difficult for him as well.

Though it's let down by a soundtrack that spends too much time trying to tell us what to feel, this is, as a whole, a finely crafted piece of cinema which handles its explosive subject with great delicacy. It has the paranoid edge of a Seventies science fiction classic but gives way to something more like a homily. Rather than an exhortation to anger, it's an invitation to think.

Reviewed on: 14 Dec 2018
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The son of a Baptist preacher is forced to participate in a church-supported gay conversion program after being forcibly outed to his parents.
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Director: Joel Edgerton

Writer: Joel Edgerton, based on the book by Garrard Conley

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Britton Sear, Troye Sivan, Jesse LaTourette, Théodore Pellerin, Joe Alwyn

Year: 2018

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: US, Australia

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