Boy Erased review: A few years ago, actor Joel Edgerton dropped his directorial effort, a dark genre piece called The Gift. Having impressed with that, he returns with a big-name cast for his sophomore effort, a true story of religious conservatism and conversion therapy in Arkansas.

Boy Erased review
Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Boy Erased review [TIFF]

Gay conversion therapy has come up in the cinema a lot recently. Just weeks after the release of The Miseducation of Cameron Post – a superb piece of filmmaking from Desiree Akhavan – comes Edgerton’s film, along with a title card that shockingly reveals the fact that the practice is banned in only 14 states across the entire USA. That is an accurate figure as of 2018, and I had no idea – which is part of the point of these films’ existence.

Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, the film features an array of A-list talent. Lucas Hedges lands his third film at TIFF 2018 (following Ben Is Back and Mid-90s, two very different movies), playing the lead character of Jared, a young man living in a small community with a Baptist minister father (Russell Crowe), and abiding, loyal wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Jared is about to go to college having just split up from his girlfriend – perfect timing, states his new roommate Henry (Joe Alywn) as they move in together on the first day of term. An incident with Henry, who forces himself on Jared without consent in one of the film’s early, very uncomfortable scenes, soon becomes news to his reserved father and mother, who decide that he must be sent to correctional therapy at a nearby institution, led by Edgerton’s Victor Sykes.

The boot camp, designed to ‘cure’ its attendees from homosexuality, is something that Marshall insists upon after consulting his elders, wife Nancy quiet in the background, towing the line and remaining silent no matter what her thoughts. The film charts the journey that the young man goes on, battling his own feelings with what is expected of him from his immediate family. It is an uncomfortable watch – particularly the scenes involving Edgerton’s reticent dictator and his army of support workers, bafflingly intent on working through their medicine for the so-called ‘disease’ Jared carries.

Related: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

As you may imagine, Boy Erased is a dark film. It’s a tough watch in places, especially when you think of the true story on which is it based and the thousands of others that must also exist. The archaic views of the characters involved are difficult to grasp – bafflingly so – but are pulled off brilliantly by its cast. Crowe shows a new side to him as an actor, while Kidman’s shy and retiring type is a stark contrast to parts prior, particularly her most recent effort as a hardened LA detective in TIFF debuter Destroyer. I consistently write in every film he’s appeared in that Hedges is the stand-out, and that is correct here too. The young actor shows innocence, emotional vulnerability, though an inner strength in his delivery – a hugely believable showing.

Edgerton is superb as an actor with this, but also show maturity as a filmmaker too – this, not an easy story to tell with such delicacy, both in its screenplay and the execution in terms of direction. His film doesn’t necessarily point the finger or indeed have an opinion on what it portrays, but rather raises an important issue still present in today’s current social climate and lets the viewer do the thinking.

I thought that Boy Erased was a powerful piece of work. I was deeply affected, sincerely astounded by the story and utterly involved throughout.

Boy Erased review by Paul Heath, September 2018.

Boy Erased was reviewed at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for all of our coverage.

Boy Erased