Leaving behind the fun pulp stylings of his directorial debut “The Gift,” actor-turned-filmmaker Joel Edgerton has chosen a more considered approach to heavier subject matter with his second outing “Boy Erased”. Boasting a very different tone, the film deals with one young man’s journey through conversion therapy – an insidious, unproven and often religious-backed institution that’s illegal in many countries and considers homosexuality a mental disorder treatable via unethical and often dehumanizing psychotherapy techniques.
Once again it is an actor’s showpiece, drawing out strong performances right down to the smaller roles, but Edgerton’s also trying for something more ambitious here – grounding a true story in as much realism and humanity as possible and splitting the focus between the emotional consequences of the story on its supporting players and the self-affirmation of its leading character.
It’s a risk because it opens the film up to complaints of being too even-handed and distant in its approach rather than opting to be something more sensationalistic that paints the camp counsellors as evil caricatures and the kids as fierce and sassy rebels fighting back against institutionalised corruption and torture. The tropes of every prison, asylum and conformist educational institute film you’ve ever seen, especially ones with a coming of age element, are easy to fall back on.
‘Erased’ certainly doesn’t entirely escape them, yet the directness, moderation and lack of sentiment here rings true to real life even if the inherent inertness of that approach is less cinematic and accessible. It chooses forgiveness over anger and seeks to understand bigotry’s source on an individual level, be it from misplaced good intentions, self-hatred, resentment or beyond. In some ways that makes this more educational rather than truly engaging, a film for the parents concerned about their kid’s sexuality rather than the kids struggling to find and establish their own sexual identity.
What it does convey to those kids well is one of the toughest parts of being gay, an open wound that conversion therapy rubs salt into, and that’s self-control. Inherent homophobia in society forces queer kids from an early age to naturally develop a far higher level of self-control than their straight peers – well aware a wrong look or word out of place could lead to abandonment, violence or even lethal reprisals.
Even when you come out and leave that self-imposed emotional and psychological prison, you rarely ever completely lose its ingrained shame and restraint – even years later. That overactive level of self-control then has to deal with society’s double standards – where jokes about gay promiscuity run rampant, where self-entitled straight men with a habit of wandering hands, loose mouths and overconfidence (especially when drunk) are often the ones who love lecturing gay men about appropriateness.
The hypocrisy of heteronormative culture is well conveyed in the film by the counsellors engaging in activities such as ranking students by level of machismo; by Flea’s military man who threatens with his physicality; by Edgerton himself onscreen as the camp’s moustached boss, whose therapy technique involves the deliberate shaming and antagonization of a group of low self-esteem kids; and even by Jared’s peers who are already too psychologically scarred. The latter is most visibly seen in Xavier Dolan’s repressed non-touching fellow attendee and Joe Alwyn’s handsome college friend who takes the film to one of its darkest and sadly all too familiar moments.
Lucas Hedges gives one of his now signature strong performances, but it’s not a showy role. Like many LGBT youth not out yet, Jared is operating essentially in constant ‘survival mode’, always on alert and holding back his expression and feelings – forging ahead to try and get out of all this intact, with real emotional expression slipping out more and more as he finds his self-confidence. It’s a commendably understated work, but Edgerton’s non-linear structural approach doesn’t do it any favours.
Kidman will land a bunch of kudos and it’s mostly deserved. Her faded Southern Belle routine who too often defers to her husband before taking a stand for herself is the most obvious wide-appealing character arc and also the one with film’s occasional moments of character humor. She could do this role in her sleep, and when the protective tiger mother comes to the fore it’s both wonderful and comforting to watch.
Don’t underestimate Crowe though as the preacher father. Both Edgerton and Crowe’s roles could easily have been played one-dimensionally and while Edgerton’s never entirely escapes it, Crowe’s work here is highly commendable – painting Jared’s father as a prideful, stubborn and devoted man who has routinely escaped from conflict within the comfort of his beliefs – only to eventually realise it has cost him his relationship with his son.
That ultimate realisation scene is emblematic of the overall film – Edgerton could’ve gone for the easy choice of a big emotional catharsis, but instead chooses the more truthful and tougher approach. One of the film’s unexpected joys is that it convincingly portrays those first few times in one’s life when a young person sits down and has a genuine emotional life discussion with a parent where the power dynamic is entirely absent and both see and treat each other entirely as two equal human beings.
The overall sense of restraint that pervades the film carries over to the craftsmanship such as Eduard Grau’s cinematography with its warm hues in the domestic scenes and the lifeless cold in the camp itself, along with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score which is both mournful and never attention drawing bar the odd song number such as co-star Troye Sivan’s superb ballad “Revelation”.
How this will be received should be interesting. Edgerton’s skill as a filmmaker is certainly without question two films in, but his choice of an overly respectful tone and attempts to be so balanced with the film will frustrate those wanting something with more emotional heft and cinematic energy – a “One Flew Over the Peacock’s Nest” for lack of a better analogy. It’s an understated film which lingers longer than expected, and that subtle touch should have real resonance for LGBT kids and especially their parents. Cold but certainly commendable.