Let’s begin by talking about what “Boy Erased,” an interesting new film from Focus Features, is not. It is not a brave or revolutionary artistic undertaking; its ambitions are modest and manageable, and its triumphs are quiet. It is emphatically not a tragedy, and though it comes at Halloween and takes place in dim, unpleasant rooms, it is not a horror movie. It is not social realism, nor is it in any serious way an exposé about that heinous mutation of social science called conversion therapy, which is to say it doesn’t reveal anything we don’t already know, except perhaps when it points out that 700,000 Americans have been put through these programs.
It is instead a small, well-acted, and ultimately successful drama that aims to delineate the ways dogma manifests in behavior and damages American life. It also offers some hope, as well as plenty of stirring close-ups of a tremendous Nicole Kidman, but more on her later.
When we meet Jared, he and his mother are on their way to a motel in an undisclosed location, where they will stay for twelve days as he undergoes outpatient treatment for his homosexual attractions, which he has not yet acted on willingly. You see, Jared is the son of a preacher man, and up until recently he was a golden child, seen in precious baby videos, then arm-in-arm with his pretty cheerleader girlfriend. He is palpably ashamed. His world is small. He has had two interactions with other gay boys. One of them was traumatizing, and the other did not go past a certain sweet flirtation. Just eighteen, he is understandably floundering, adrift in an emotional typhoon, and yet he has been taught about how men are allowed to express their emotions. Lucas Hedges, the appealing and intelligent young actor from “Manchester-by-the-Sea” and “Lady Bird,” does a fine job of conveying this repression and anxiety.
The events that set Jared on his path through conversion therapy are especially well-drawn. He gets to college, and he’s figuring things out, when he makes friends with Henry, another good Christian boy and a closeted tease (Joe Alwyn, terrific). They play video games, attend church, and go for runs, but as their friendship progresses, Henry subtly manipulates, grooms, and eventually preys upon Jared violently. And afterwards, in an attempt to muddy the waters and keep Jared quiet, Henry melts down in a puddle of contrived regret, and later, he calls Jared’s parents to out him. The subsequent sequence is painful, particularly because Jared’s parents, Marshall and Nancy, are respectively played by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.
The most interesting thing about “Boy Erased,” and the thing which sets it apart from other coming out narratives, is its nuanced sympathy for these parents. Their world is small. They prize their familial stability. When they encourage Jared to go through conversion therapy, they sincerely believe it is the most helpful option for him. They love him, but they did not plan for this, and they can’t fathom any other way through it. So particular and rigid is the insulation of
their world that when Marshall sends Jared to a physician (Cherry Jones) to test his blood for a testosterone imbalance - yes, seriously! - she dismisses their concern but must choose her words with the utmost care: “I’m a religious woman, there’s no doubt about that. But...”
The good doctor’s opinions notwithstanding, Jared is off to a conversion therapy center called Love In Action. Everyone there is gay including the staff, led by an unlicensed, profoundly damaged “therapist,” Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton). They go through some rudimentary rituals, all of which are based on a superficial, doctrinaire misunderstanding of human behavior. They map their family trees for alcoholism, domestic violence, gang activity. They act out their presumed anger towards their fathers. They practice masculine posture. The oddness is compounded by the varying behaviors of the clients. Two in particular, played by Xavier Dolan and Troye Sivan, are on opposite ends of the conversion therapy spectrum. One, the die-hard, shows up each day with new bruises and scars. The other is trying to lie his way through the therapy in order to keep his family. They’re in the short-term outpatient program, and the spectre of an indefinite stay at Love In Action hangs over them, but that is an option less scary than the uncertain terror that life as gay men signifies for them.
The program becomes more suspicious and its foundations begin to shake. And this is where I will come to the Kidman of it all. This fascinating mother-son relationship is our best way into this film. Kidman’s Nancy is not merely believable; she disappears into this woman. Her look - feathered suburban mom hair and tastefully gaudy department store prints - is alarmingly specific, as well as effective visual shorthand: This is a good woman who truly doesn’t know any better. Even at her cruelest, she is tender, and somewhere along the way, we begin to track Jared’s emotional journey alongside his mother’s gradual steps out of her own repression. It’s subtle work from an artist at the peak of her powers, and if there is anything truly unexpected in “Boy Erased” it is to be found in Kidman’s transfixing performance.
Written and directed by Edgerton, who showed promise in his directorial debut The Gift, “Boy Erased” has definite cohesion and precision, as well as a hushed minimalism. Edgerton foregrounds an actorly focus on the minutiae of character development. Of course nobody develops in a particularly surprising way, but all of these relationships ring true. There is a genuine belief in human goodness underneath every scene in “Boy Erased,” and the scenes of abuse are all the more devastating for that: Edgerton ensures that we never lose sight of the forces that made these people into abusers. Some gay viewers may be looking for something more cut-and-dry, and for that reason they may find “Boy Erased” a mite too forgiving. But for those who can handle this sincere, troubling film, Edgerton has imbued a rather staid undertaking with a touch of welcome nuance.