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Toronto Review: ‘Boy Erased’ (★★★½)

Joel Edgerton has crafted a compassionate family drama with extraordinary performances from Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe

In Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley’s best-selling memoir of the same name, Jared, a 19-year old college student, is whisked away from his Arkansas home in the dark, early hours of the morning by his mother to 12-day gay conversion camp called Love in Action.

Led by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who directs and adapted the book), Love in Action is a prison-like atmosphere of strict rules. No phones, no journals, the boys wear white shirts and basic slacks. The girls look like sister wives from Big Love. The sermons implore the kids to believe that you aren’t born gay it’s a choice, much like his being a pastor. His chart details the horrors of being gay, presenting nothing but a downward spiral not simply of immorality but inevitable death.

Edgerton’s casting here is shrewd and reaches into the deep bench of his Aussie brethren; he’s peppered the camp with queer icons like Australian pop singer Troye Sivan (who also provides the film with a stunning original song, “Revelation,” that deserves an Oscar nomination), Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan as a roughed up guy on his second round at Love in Action and Cherry Jones as a doctor who offers some very sage advice for Jared.

Lucas Hedges plays Jared and the young Oscar nominee (Manchester by the Sea) is on the precipice of being a major star. After multiple supporting performances last year and this year upcoming, he takes the reigns as a true leading man here, plumbing the emotional depths of a seasoned thespian. His Jared is conflicted, confused, repressed and struggling to understand his feelings and more so how to be honest with them to those around him.

As his mother Nancy, Nicole Kidman continues to shine and turns what could have been, in lesser hands, a mockery of a Southern mother and instead brings to life a woman with more heart and strength than she thinks she has and finds the root of love in a truly emotionally resonant performance.

Russell Crowe is, at this stage of his career, a revelation here. Deeply invested in his role, practically disappearing in it, it’s a complicated balancing act that required a deft hand and Crowe absolutely nails it.

Edgerton, in just his second film, asserts himself as a strong actor’s director but also one with an understanding of the material he’s adapting. He doesn’t skip out on the film’s technical side either. The score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is often a surprising choice – at turns very Douglas Sirkian, at others traditional melodrama. Cinematographer Eduard Grau finds the most vulnerable places of each actor and instead of exploiting it, simply lets us see it. The non-linear editing from Jay Rabinowitz keeps giving us missing puzzle pieces as we work towards the film’s tear-inducing finale.

It’s telling that we have not one but two films this year about the horrors of gay conversion therapy. The Sundance winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post from Desiree Akhavan provides a very different look, and from a female perspective, giving us a broad spectrum in which to see the same subject. We literally have a vice president who is the country’s staunchest and most visible supporter of the practice. We need these stories.

What makes Boy Erased, both the memoir and the film, so successful is that it approaches its subjects with an extraordinary amount of empathy. Hollywood loves to makes films in which the West and East Coast can feel very good about their Democratic leanings. It’s the very thing that Republicans and red states accuse the left of being – out of touch with ‘the real America.’ To be clear, what I mean by this is not to dig the left for the lean of its take on social and political issues but that, as is often the case in real life, stories are not always made up of heroes and villains. Jared’s parents are both coming from a place in which they feel they’re doing the right thing. They’re coming from a place where that’s all they know. “Our family is so normal,” Nancy genuinely says at one point. Boy Erased explores the idea that knowledge and love can override the systemic and institutionalized nature of religion in a way that speaks to the people who need to hear it the most and it does so in a way that isn’t patronizing or without much finger-wagging.

One of my main focuses when I watch or review a film is I ask myself a few questions: ‘What is the filmmaker’s intent and do they succeed?’ and ‘Who is this film for?’  Edgerton acutely zeroes in on creating honest portrayals of people in the throes of deeply moral quandaries and doesn’t simply preach the choir, as it were. He presents the dangers and trauma associated with gay conversion and knows that it’s the parents who perpetrate it on their queer children that might actually have the capacity to see their own offspring as humans and not simply a scripture that needs to be adhered to.

Boy Erased ends with two important statistics: that 36 states in the US still allow gay conversion therapy and that over 700K LGTBQ youths have been impacted by it. It’s never easy for a ‘message’ movie to provide its message without underlining, bolding and italicizing to make sure it gets through but this one does.

What it also ends with is an incredible sense of hope and for some, either parents of queer teens or teens themselves watching, it could be a life-saving moment.

Boy Erased premiered at Telluride then the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in the US by Focus Features on November 2, 2018.

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About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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