Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased may lack depth in its examination of LGBTQIA torment, but its handling of family dynamics and the performances of Luke Hedges and Nicole Kidman are cause for redemption.By Jonno Revanche.
At the outset, Boy Erased presents its audience with a familiar premise – a young, white, relatively well-off man fumbling through the transition from high school to college. Our protagonist, Jared Eamons, played by a luminescent Lucas Hedges, is immediately likeable, though somewhat reserved and by all appearances unremarkable. That is, until a sexual assault at the hands of a fellow student prompts his coming out to his conservative religious parents.
Soon after Jared’s disclosure – “I think about men, I don’t know why, and I’m so sorry” – priests arrive at the family’s suburban home in the middle of the night, offering the option of “treatment”. Jared’s father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist pastor, insists upon the treatment program as a genuine move to a more righteous path. His mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), persuades herself it could be of some help, but mostly seems to go along with the wishes of her husband out of obligation. This early hesitance in Kidman’s performance unravels beautifully throughout the rest of the film.
“Empathy enlarges us by connecting us to the lives of others,” wrote historian, activist and author Rebecca Solnit, “and in that is a terrible vulnerability, one that parents know intimately, terrifyingly.” While Marshall turns away from the source of all that terrifying vulnerability, leaving Jared resentful, Nancy does not. She comes armed with steely determination and perfectly coiffed hair. In hotel rooms, she sits in solidarity with her son after he finishes his 9-to-5 counselling, reading his avoidant expressions and turns of phrase with defiance and competency. At first illiterate to his feelings and experiences, their brief conversations slowly start to break down the impossibilities of language. Gays and their mums, right?
Kidman holds this film together in her spindly, bejewelled, Oscar-worthy hands. If the rest of Boy Erased suffers from an, at times, overly technical type of pathos, rarely settling upon serious emotion unless it’s absolutely required for advancement of the story, Kidman’s dolled-up, emotively appliquéd smirks and sideways looks are the antidote. Every custom, sequined, vaguely doily-esque vintage jacket lifts a scene from ontological death. Her Bulgari necklaces outstrip the power of even Wonder Woman’s lasso. She is serving us Bendigo mum kitsch realness.
Although Jared is forbidden from telling anyone what happens during the conversion program, Nancy endeavours to find out what’s going on, rifling through the binders her son has been given by his therapists. It’s hard not to cheer for Kidman in these moments – it’s like she conjured the vengeful spirits of every disgruntled Caucasian mother to make the part believable.
Hedges’ performance stands as an interesting counterpoint to the more ephemeral presence of singer Troye Sivan, who here plays another boy in the processing program – his peroxide twinkiness distinctly alien to the surrounds they share. Sivan speaks a maximum of four lines in the movie – jumping wildly between South African, Texan and Australian accents in that short time. And yet, he’s the cast member, not Hedges, who has been present at almost all of the publicity events for the film. It feels like a strangely sterile casting decision, an arbitrary career move suggested by a team of managers.
By comparison, Hedges adopts the role of filmic queerness in a way that doesn’t feel commodified, exaggerated or tokenistic. Unlike other contemporaries, such as Timothée Chalamet, who preoccupy themselves with queer roles far beyond their comprehension and risk turning them into pastiche, Hedges is quietly devoted to the precision of this story, applying his acting skill without any sense of bravado.
In interviews surrounding the film’s release, he himself has identified as “existing on that spectrum: not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual”. His performance shares that same openness and adventurousness without layering pretence or overemphasising “identity” for the consumption of a mainstream audience. It feels rooted in a sincere and adaptive practice of observation, research and delivery. There’s an intelligence there, which hints at a bright future and a willingness to commit to emotional depth.
Boy Erased may be set in the deeply religious American south, but it’s a film dominated by Australians – from Kidman and Crowe (starring) to Joel Edgerton (competently directing) and Sivan. Their backgrounds are, arguably, inseparable from their image. The tone can only be described as one of a peculiar cultural familiarity – one cannot watch with the cool detachment of an Australian seeing America’s homophobia laid bare. The parallels are inescapable, perhaps structural, built in by Edgerton’s casting decisions.
I was never sent to gay conversion therapy, but it was not a distant threat for a queer teenager growing up in regional Australia. If I had not played my cards right, if my family hadn’t moved to a city, if I did not decide to establish my autonomy before “coming out” to my parents… To me, scenes set in the suburban sprawl of Arkansas could just as easily play out beyond the bubbles of Australia’s cities – the pockets of the country that voted “No” in the same-sex marriage postal vote a year ago. Boy Erased ’s Australian release, on the eve of the anniversary of the result, prompts consideration of Australia’s LGBTQIA politics since the triumphant “Yes” vote.
Our own prime minister, when asked about the ongoing prevalence of gay conversion treatment – the primary consideration of Boy Erased – responded that it was simply, well, not his biggest concern at the moment. Suspected queerness may not be routinely met with outright public hostility, but acceptance that we exist and love and, yes, even have gay sex still comes with the caveat that our queerness be kept largely hidden. We live in a world that is happy for gay people to fight for determination but unhappy for them to encroach upon “straight” spaces in a way that jars with heterosexual sensibilities and tastes. In this, gay conversion treatment must be understood not as some foreign, distant phenomenon but as part of the most concentrated elements of homophobia that remain seeded in the culture, concealed but very much alive.
Through the device of the conversion program, Boy Erased highlights the ways queerness is quietened, shooed away and eliminated. Uncross your legs, one counsellor informs Hedges and his fellow participants during the conversation program; practise the acceptably masculine way of folding your arms, of placing hands on hips. In a scene that strikes as both hilarious and infuriating, another counsellor asks a girl in the program to assess each boy based on how “feminine” they appear and orders them into a line. It’s almost funny, and so obviously subjective, betraying the irrationality and childishness of prejudicial behaviour, but it is also an extreme manifestation of gay panic and fear of otherness that echoes in daily life.
When the cruelties and disturbing stratagems of the processing centre become more obvious, and the telltale signs of more serious institutional abuse become apparent, the tension introduced fizzles in oddly ineffective moments. One of Jared’s cohort takes their own life, but the death does not feel like it is held with the weight it is due. For the most part, Edgerton’s direction treats the subject matter with gravitas and brilliantly explores difficult family dynamics, but his attempt to address this specific manifestation of queer pain is skirted around, as if out of convenience. Known mostly for his understated acting style, Edgerton’s directorial vision shares that stoicism. It’s as if the reality of this young man being pushed to suicide is too heavy to put on screen. Thus, we only begin to scratch the surface. This depth is lacking elsewhere, too. It was frustrating to watch Jared’s narrative arc be presented as the result of outdated traditions, without those traditions being fully examined by the film.
When the time comes to wind together the loose threads, unpicked across two hours, no easy resolution is offered. There’s a strange comfort in that, though. There are no easy villains, even if the guidance counsellors are so infuriating and bullheaded they tempt the viewer to jump up and boo in a packed cinema. The audience is instead asked to sit with the varied realities that come from family incompatibilities and gives it some of the cognitive tools to do so, to finally establish confidence to talk back to hegemonic power, as Jared does to his father in one of the final scenes.
Boy Erased is sometimes dry and predictable, despite its heartfelt and many sublime performances – most of them rising to the surface at the film’s conclusion. However, in the power of its story, its obvious cultural relevance and the immersion of Kidman and Hedges in their roles, the film is able, by the final frame, to redeem itself.
Carriageworks, Sydney, until December 9
Queensland Theatre, Brisbane, until December 8
MULTIMEDIA The Bridge
The Substation, Melbourne, November 22-24
MUSIC Live Music Safari
Venues throughout Melbourne, November 22
VISUAL ART Tuckson: the abstract sublime
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 17
VISUAL ART Breathing Trees: Nicola Moss
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until November 25
THEATRE Look Howard, Angel
Independent Theatre, Adelaide, until November 24
VISUAL ART 21st Liverpool Art Society Anniversary Exhibition
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, until December 22
VISUAL ART Black Mist Burnt Country
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until November 18
MULTIMEDIA Iconic Australian Houses: An exhibition by Karen McCartney
Ipswich Art Gallery, Queensland, until November 18
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Playing it straight". Subscribe here.