As I am heterosexual I cannot imagine wanting or needing certain things, such as romantic companionship or a sexual relationship with another man. I cannot imagine being attracted to masculine characteristics, to broad noses and broad shoulders. It simply doesn’t compute. It’s simply a part of my DNA. In their bones, every red-blooded, God-lovin’ American, or human for that matter…they know this to be true, they know it to be true that sexuality isn’t a choice at all, but an integral part of who we are born to be. If a conservative man can know this about himself, why the cognitive dissonance? I won’t get into the weed on the many natures of homophobia; the victims of a culture war, the woebegone attitudes of a dying way. Because they are not bad guys in the life of Garrard Conley.
Based on the memoir by Conley, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased honors the Conley family, avoids easy villains, avoids caricature of religion or the Christian south. His film is an impassioned plea to parents of LGBTQ youth, as well as an empathetic display of one American family who made mistakes on behalf of their son. It’s even a subtle if unfinished examination of what creates something like gay conversation therapy, the self-hatred and misogyny inherent in a belief system that says “don’t act feminine” or “don’t be yourself,” that emphasizes cartoonish imitations of masculinity. It’s all of these and yet not a cathartic or particularly emotional experience, save for what a radiant Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe bring to the table in one scene or another as mother and father Nancy and Marshall, or what young Lucas Hedges gives over to the role of Jared, the titular boy under threat of personal erasure.
Crowe has the unenviable task of imbuing Jared’s pastor father with a gentle giant’s love. Marshall is a rigid man who knows one way or the highway, but he loves his only son and that pulley system of fear, doubt, and other feelings is etched on his face through thick and thin as he grapples with the idea of a gay son. Ditto Kidman’s Nancy, a woman used to falling in line behind her husband as a good southern wife is want for, and not for long this time. As revelations are had, as she learns the madness behind their methods, she comes to her son’s aid at the moment he needs her most. His mother saves him from the fate bestowed on so many of his peers who endure time in such a place. Nancy eventually divulges her regrets in a heart-wrenching one-on-one with Jared, one that oughta earn Kidman yet another Oscar nomination. I’d never been an acolyte of hers until now.
Much like Edgerton’s chosen color palette, Boy Erased can be monochromatic in tone, favoring the minatory strings of a near-thriller over the poignant rhythms of a tear-jerker drama. While menace is appropriate for Love in Action, that tone is often incongruous with the Conleys’ story, a family of love despite all their trouble and discordance. Edgerton’s less effective choices are mostly forgotten when listening to an angel’s voice, and we can thank Joel himself for involving the talents of pop star Troye Sivan whose song “Revelation” is a revelation itself. Written for the film and tailored for a personal epiphany of Jared’s when he meets a young artist with no interest in his pants, only with laying next to him and sharing that brief flash of life together after good night and good conversation. It’s an indelible moment in the film, made iconic by Sivan’s elegant work with Jonsi of Sigur Ros.
Between “Shallow” and “Revelation” it’s been a great year for soundtracks, if not yet a great year for film (still a month to go, we’ll see). It’s been a good year punctuated with greatness on rare occasion, a little like Boy Erased. Crowe, Kidman, and Hedges give emotional heft to a narrative that shouldn’t need them for such heavy lifting. That muted nature of it all is made up for by Edgerton’s ear for musical talent and eye for how to tell this story in grey, not black and white. The problem with message movies is they’re often preaching to the choir, and while some added detail would’ve been enlightening, Boy Erased is not one of those movies. It’s reaching out to those parents and conservatives who are not villains, but loved ones doing the best they can with what they know.