In a Conversion Camp, a Young Man Tries to Hold Onto His True Self

Lucas Hedges (left) and Troye Sivan in “Boy Erased”
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Three years ago, Joel Edgerton became another actor to step behind the camera and made an impressive filmmaking debut with the psychological thriller, “The Gift,” in which he starred and also wrote. After he exemplified his exciting new talents as a director, I was eager to see what kind of story he would bring to the screen next. Now, he brings us a film that’s different in all respects.

For his second go-around, Edgerton presents us with “Boy Erased,” a timely and heart-rending biographical drama that brings its urgency to life with an important story and superb performances.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) lives with his mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), and father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), in Arkansas. When Jared’s parents find out that he’s gay, they sign him up for conversion therapy program, with the hopes of making him straight. While he’s there, he will have to decide whether to make his parents happy by changing, or be true to himself and risk being an outcast in his community.

Hedges, who gave a career-making supporting performance in 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea,” as well as other memorable supporting performances in last years’ “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Lady Bird,” is given the chance to show his talents in a lead role, and it’s a performance that continues the promise of a long career. Although it can become a tad distracting from time to time that Hedges doesn’t use a southern accent like all of the other characters, the strength of his work is enough to make up for it. Throughout the movie, the uncertainty of himself that Jared shows is heartbreaking to watch, as you know that he has a tough decision to make regarding whether or not to be who he wants to be. Hedges elicits the confusion that’s overtaking his life, and watching his frustration break out in a pivotal scene with the program’s head therapist (Edgerton) is empowering to watch and makes you feel the relief of Jared letting his feelings out.

Kidman offers a loving performance as Jared’s mother. In this role, Kidman shows a parent who thinks that what she’s doing for her son is best, but then, bit by bit, starts seeing the light that what she and her husband got Jared into is wrong. While it’s a wonderful performance to watch for the duration of the film, it’s in the movie’s third act where the story calls for Kidman to bring out the unconditional love that Jared needs in his life, and the tenderness that Kidman offers the role makes us experience the warmth and support that any child deserves when facing uncertainty in their life.

Crowe gives a remarkable performance where, just like with Kidman, a lot of the substance from his role comes in the third act as he’s faced with choosing to stand by his son or lose him. It’s a role where Crowe shows the strain of the choice with which his character is faced, making the drama between Jared and his father one of the most poignant parts of the story because of how it all comes down to both of them having to choose a route to take.

The screenplay by Edgerton, which is based on the 2016 book “Boy Erased: A Memoir,” by Garrard Conley (off of whom the character of Jared is based), goes in depth with how the conversion-therapy programs operate. We’re shown unsettling details of the methods that are used that try to convert these youths, and it’s shattering to watch the counselors try to peel away at the campers’ true identities, made even more by the fact that there are still programs like this that are out there.

The story follows a non-linear narrative, which works for the story because of how Jared is given assignments that cause him to have to think back to the events that brought him to the program. Through these scenes, we’re given a view of the life that Jared was living beforehand, which shows him acknowledging the person who he is, but not knowing if he should continue being that person.

One of the most effective elements of the screenplay is how, within the last half hour, the narrative focuses on the aftermath of Jared being in the program and the triumph, as well as the heartbreak, that occurs once he’s out of it. Here, we’re able to see what Jared does in order to adjust back into his life at home and how the events that happened at the camp shape his life moving forward.

Edgerton shows a wonderful transition from the thrills of “The Gift” to the hard-hitting relevancy of “Boy Erased.” He captures the anxiety that Jared experiences as his secret begins to unravel in front of his parents, as well as the hopelessness that he feels when being forced into a place that wants him to be something that he’s not. Afterwards, Edgerton delivers a joyous sense of liberation when Jared is set free from the camp. With this, Edgerton provides us with an emotional look at a young man’s life-changing journey about not needing to change a thing about who you are.

Grade: A-

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