Joel Edgerton's tense drama sees young men forced into a gay conversion program by their religious and conservative families.
The Gift, a psychological horror-thriller about a married couple who are taunted by a figure from their past. However, it’s Edgerton’s sophomore effort, Boy Erased, a film that exposes the truth about gay conversion therapy, that proves to be the real horror story.
After being outed to his religious and conservative parents, Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is pressured into attending a conversion therapy program selected for him by his father.
During his time there, Jared disagrees with the questionable practices and comes into conflict with chief therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton) as he begins to accept his true self.
Edgerton unflinchingly portrays the harsh and abominable realities of conversion treatment facilities, but he is also incredibly sympathetic and seeks to understand these characters, some of whom could simply be painted as heartless or cruel individuals under a different creative guidance.
This is particularly true with the treatment of Jared’s parents, Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman), who are ruled by their faith, and the discovery of their son’s sexuality goes against the grain of all their beliefs.
Marshall enrols Jared in the program and Nancy dutifully supports the decision, but as she gradually learns more about it and sees that her son’s happiness is being compromised, she starts to question her blind obedience.
The casting of two actors of such calibre is inspired and both Crowe and Kidman give measured and thoughtful performances in their respectively challenging supporting roles.
However, Boy Erased belongs to young rising star and Academy Award nominee (for his supporting turn in Manchester by the Sea) Lucas Hedges and he takes centre stage in a lead role worthy of his talents.
Jared is no outstanding teenager and adheres to the typical high-school rites of passage including competing in basketball games, having a steady girlfriend and working a part-time job alongside his studies.
The quiet and internal struggle with his sexuality lingers over his quiet, small town life but he knows that admitting and revealing the truth would cause division amongst his family and religious community.
During therapy sessions, the pupils are forced to endure humiliating activities including posture correction and baseball practice with the aim of making them conventional stereotype of masculinity.
Jared is initially respondent to the demoralising tribulations, but he eventually doubts the credibility of the program – he becomes uncomfortable upon discovering that the therapy has no set end date and if he fails to convince Sykes that he has become straight, he will have to move into an on-campus home.
Sykes is also insistent on assigning the blame on his pupil’s same-sex attraction on their family members.
However, Jared refuses to claim that his father is the source of his “confusion”, creating discord and making Jared realise clearly for the first time that his homosexuality isn’t the result of anyone’s actions or behaviour, but an intrinsic part of him that he is finally ready to embrace.
Not all of the young men in the program experience the same journey and different members of the group fulfil separate ideologies that help Jared to reach his accepting conclusion.
Troye Sivan’s Gary persuades Jared to “play the part” until he can leave and resume a normal life, whereas Xavier Dolan’s Jon is fiercely committed to the cause (so much so that he refuses to touch another man), adopting a military-like approach to the program.
But it’s a character called Cameron’s trajectory that is the most tragic, albeit predictable, of them all.