God’s Not Here, But Your Son Is – Boy Erased

Gender and sexual identity has been a major source for Hollywood stories for the better part of the last three decades, and it would be fascinating to see the evolution of LGBT characters in film over that span. It’s also instant Oscar bait for those involved, as sexual diversity is a big box check during Awards Season. The latest is Boy Erased, written and directed by Joel Edgerton (who also stars as the primary antagonist), which takes a fairly unique angle for a work of fiction, giving us a look at conversion therapy through the lens of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), a gay teenager in a super-conservative Baptist family, based on Garrard Conley, the author of the memoir upon which the film was based.

This is good, compelling film, with some really strong acting from the chief pair, and I get the feeling the producers will be aiming for even more recognition from the various awards circuits. I’m not entirely sure it warrants such accolades, mostly because of some confusions within the screenplay and the fact that things get a bit too maudlin and melodramatic at times, but it’s definitely worth seeing nonetheless, and I’ll continue breaking down the relevant categories for which the film may have submitted.

Best Actor: Lucas Hedges is quickly becoming one of the best actors in the business. He’s already been nominated for one Oscar, and I have to think he’ll at least get consideration here as well. The young man has had a couple of very strong years so far in his career.

Thankfully, this time around, he’s not reduced to a lame phrase-turned-meme. He doesn’t have to weep for his father and scream, “I DON’T WANT HIM TO BE IN A FACKIN’ FREEZAH!” mostly because his father’s not dead, just an obstacle. As Jared, he’s seen as a perfectly average, God-fearing boy in Arkansas. He’s a high school basketball star, he’s dating a cheerleader, and he’s already preparing for college.

When the film begins, however, we see him showing up to what looks like a church or rec center, handing over his belongings as if he’s entering prison. As his mother (Nicole Kidman) looks on, he enters the “trial” period of a program called “Love in Action,” which is meant to “cure” sinful boys and girls of homosexual tendencies. What Jared doesn’t know is that if he isn’t “fixed” to the satisfaction of the program, his two-week trial period could turn into an internment of a year or more.

What makes Hedges’ performance work is the fact that he at least initially goes into the “treatment” wanting to change. Given his upbringing in a Baptist household in freaking Arkansas, all he’s ever known is down home Southern Christian goodness. Even if he has differences of opinion with his preacher father (Russell Crowe), he is fundamentally happy with the way his life has turned out, because he’s led a good, Godly life so far. So why is he gay? What did he do wrong? Sadly, only the family doctor is willing to say, “nothing.”

It’s that fear and confusion that Hedges brilliantly adds to the character throughout the proceedings, be it in his “sessions” or in the flashbacks of his life that led him to this place. He’s told that homosexuality is a choice, but he certainly didn’t choose it. He’s told that gay behavior is a result of upbringing and environmental exposure to sin, but he was raised in the exact opposite environment that Victor Sykes (Edgerton – I half wonder if the name is in reference to the villain from “Oliver Twist,” because it’s hard to tell what names were changed from the memoir and which ones weren’t) describes as hazardous to getting that oh-so-needed Divine love. Even when consulting his mother, at best he can find one relative who exhibited similar behaviors and he was kept away from Jared as a child. Sykes tells Jared to yell at an empty chair representing his father, to tell his father how much he hates him. But Jared doesn’t hate his father. He disagrees with his father, but he still loves him.

It’s that central internal conflict – that “moral inventory,” if you will – that makes Hedges’ performance so good. It’s also I think a failure of the larger screenplay. All Jared knows is what he sees, feels, and experiences around him. He just wants to do, and be, good. Everything he knows tells him he’s not a bad person, but his father and Sykes tell him that God will punish him in spite of it all just because of what type of person stirs his loins, but God himself is not there to speak for Himself, just people with their own agendas. And through it all, Jared does not have the capacity to hate any of them. He is a being of pure love.

Best Supporting Actress: I honestly don’t think Nicole Kidman did anything groundbreaking here. She’s just a caring, concerned, and slightly conflicted mother (mildly torn between loyalty to her son, her husband, and her god, but it’s mostly just lip service). She looks like a Dolly Parton impersonator with a worse accent, and despite her defiant speeches to Sykes about his qualifications, she herself is just a hairdresser, so what expertise does she have?

So why even bring her up? Well, a sobbing, loving, Christian mother in a bad wig was all she was in Lion a couple years ago, and it was enough for a nomination then. I can’t ignore the possibility it might happen again.

Best Supporting Actor: There are actually three options for the Academy and others to look at here. The first is Russell Crowe as Jared’s father, Marshall. For the most part he’s just there to be a stereotypical bigoted Southerner (also with a bad accent – I love Joel Edgerton as a director, but what made him think two Australians were the best choice to do Arkansas voices?), but there are a few moments where his presence elevates the proceedings. The first is when he gives Jared the ultimatum of either going to conversion therapy or being disowned. The coldness in his eyes and the pain in his voice are palpable. The same goes for one of the climactic scenes where he and Jared begin their reconciliation. One of the best lines of the film is delivered by Crowe in this scene. “I asked God… if I was ready to lose you.” For a one-dimensional character, Crowe does a lot with it.

Second is Edgerton himself as Victor Sykes. There are a lot of great moments for him as the abuser-in-chief, wit all the inherent contradictions of his methods and his core concepts in “treating” the gay youth of America. Again, the only real problems I have with his character are a byproduct of the script. For example, in the closing text before the credits, there’s a little joking aside about Sykes. It got laughs from the audience, myself included. But it would have hit a lot better if the character were allowed to have any nuance, if there were any hint of personal conflict or repression. Instead we’re left with a momentary chuckle.

Finally you have one of the counselors, named Brandon. He’s there to make the boys more “manly,” because he too was once a sinner with drugs, alcohol, and gayness. And he knows how to make men out of these sissy boys. There’s always one “success story” in these camps who tries to project their repression onto the others as a means to toughen them up. In this case, it means taking them hunting and to batting cages, where a particularly scrawny boy named Lee (played by a girl – Emily Hinkler) gets repeatedly beaned in the head to the point that his parents pull him out of the program. Another contradiction for Jared comes from this scene, because he’s a natural athlete.

Anyway, Brandon is played by Flea, the bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who occasionally acts (he played one of the robbers on a botched job in Baby Driver last year). Flea is appropriately menacing when he needs to be, the bad cop to Sykes’ apparent good cop by comparison. Whenever Sykes makes a declaration about the punishment for not turning straight, it’s usually Brandon who carries it out (save for a truly devastating fake funeral late in the film). In one particularly creepy scene, Jared goes to the bathroom, which he’s not allowed to do alone (because he might touch himself and anger Jesus, you see), so Brandon comes in and watches him pee. He just stares at Jared’s back the whole time, and you get a sense of that personal repression that I wish we’d gotten in Sykes. He is a sexual threat, and it gets across in a way that’s borderline terrifying. The “Morse Code”-like sputters in the toilet punctuate every morbidly awkward moment, and it’s Flea’s overall performance and camera presence that makes it work.

Best Director: Joel Edgerton is a singular talent, both in front of the camera and behind. And since he wrote the screenplay, directing it made sure that his exact vision would get across. He certainly brought out the best in his cast, not just the aforementioned stars, but even in minor performances from Joe Alwyn (most recently in Operation Finale) as Jared’s former college friend, as well as a trio of fellow “campers” that serve as a great thematic device, representing the three most common outcomes from conversion therapy: Xavier Dolan (the record exec who harasses the main character in Bad Times at the El Royale) as Jon is so committed to “fixing” himself that he won’t even shake another man’s hand to avoid skin-on-skin contact; singer Troye Sivan as Gary simply fakes that the “treatment” is working until he can convince everyone he’s “cured” and can return to normal life; and finally Britton Sear (from Unfinished Business) features as Cameron, a macho football player who has the most predictable outcome.

The other great directorial move from Edgerton is in the presentation. The original memoir jumps around along the timeline, looking at Garrard Conley’s upbringing, college experience, and parsing it out alongside his testimonial about Love in Action’s treatment of their charges. Edgerton echoes this style by beginning the film in media res, and jumping back and forth with flashbacks to inform each major scene. It’s a minor touch, and even an expected one in certain circumstances, but sometimes it’s worth lauding someone for not trying to fix what’s not broken (an inherent irony of conversion therapy itself). So many filmmakers can’t leave well enough alone these days, so it’s nice to see someone not fuck up what works.

Adapted Screenplay: Sadly, this is the down point for the film, and an unfortunate choice in tone for Edgerton. He leans way too heavily on melodramatic dialogue to get the point across when it comes to the emotional weight of Jared’s experience, when he should know that his actors could sell the drama reciting a phone book. In small doses it’s okay, but it gets a bit heavy-handed at times.

Further, as I’ve hinted before, the film doesn’t go far enough in showing just how dangerous conversion therapy and its proponents are, and I think it’s in a misguided attempt to not offend the pious. It’s almost a tossed off joke that Hedges and Kidman can see a litany of spelling and grammar mistakes in the Love in Action handbook, including misspelling “God” as “Dog.”

But if you’re going to indict this practice – and you should be – you have to go farther than that. You have to call them on the carpet for their dangerous hypocrisy. Instead, the film only scratches the surface. It’s not enough for Jared to be a living, breathing contradiction of their assertions, he (and the film by extension) has to assert that contradiction himself, and not just in one climactic speech. He’s told that homosexuality is a choice. Why not point out the obvious? Who would choose ANY of this if being ostracized by loved ones and society (not to mention the Almighty) is the result? There are scenes where Sykes literally speaks out of both sides of his mouth, claiming God both loves and hates the people there. Which is it? And what proof do you offer, other than a 6,000-year-old book?

Jared’s first lesson is to draw a family tree, noting any and all family members who ever did anything untoward – not just being gay, but smoking, drinking, doing harder drugs, gambling, anything. The idea is that homosexuality is a learned behavior, which is in itself faulty, but then they hypocritically compound it by assuming that people still “inherited” these lifestyles. Again, which is it? Even if you somehow believe in the horribly misguided idea that homosexuality is “wrong” or “unnatural,” what sane person would believe that a literal Bible thumping would change it?

Hell, one of the cardinal rules of Love in Action is that the “therapy” is not to be discussed outside of the group. Normally counselor-patient privilege is the burden of the one providing treatment. They can’t reveal patient secrets, or betray their confidence. Instead, with Love in Action (and I’m sure a whole lot of other pray-away-the-gay outfits), the onus is upon the person paying for this “treatment” to not mention what goes on. They even sign documents to that effect. Right there it should be a major red flag. If one of the basic rules is that you can’t tell your loved ones what’s happening to you, shouldn’t that immediately tell you that some unethical, if not downright illegal shit is going down? They want to protect themselves from scrutiny, because they know what they’re doing is wrong. They need to be called out on that. They need to be forced to reconcile that moral contradiction, or face consequences, not innocent children who just happen to be attracted to people with the same sex organs. How many times have we heard stories about child molesters – particularly men of the cloth – assaulting children and then telling them not to tell, or else God will punish them? But does the film address this? Somehow, no.

This is a script problem more than anything else. Most of the time I’m a “show me, don’t tell me” guy, but if you’re going to make a strong social point and expose a societal wrong, you have to show AND tell, instead of just relying on the audience to naturally root for Jared as a means to get us on the right side of history. Most of the viewers are already there. You have to – I hate to say it – convert the others. And you don’t do it just with images. You have to drill it into them, treat them like they’re five years old and explain how this is just factually wrong, and then go into the societal and moral reasons it’s wrong. It’s a noble effort, but it needed to go farther.

Also, why did we change names here? I mean, this is Garrard Conley’s memoir, why not just use his name? I can’t imagine he would object, nor would his family, especially since we see family photos at the end that show the makeup team pretty much got the look right. I understand the Dragnet line of “changing names to protect the innocent,” but it seems needlessly tacky to change the main character’s name, especially when it’s in the credits.

Overall, this is a very good film, and while I dump on the script a bit, that’s only saying that it doesn’t deserve to win an Oscar. It’s not a shit script by any means, and there are some very fine performances (with some odd accent choices) to make you forgive some hokey moments. Still, as far as gay movies this year, I’d recommend the much more uplifting Love, Simon. It’s just as schmaltzy in places, but leaves you smiling for a lot more of the proceedings, and not just because it has more positive themes.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite movie dealing with LGBT leads? What other wigs can we stick on Nicole Kidman’s head to get her an Oscar nomination? I vote Pennywise! Let me know!

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