by George Wolf
I don’t know if Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet are up on tennis history, but lately they’ve had a nice little Borg/McEnroe thing going. Close in both age and film credits, the last few years have seen them serve and volley with increasingly impressive performances.
Just weeks after Chalamet’s astounding turn in Beautiful Boy, Hedges joins him as a likely Oscar nominee with an intensely intimate performance in Boy Erased, a touching and vital account of one young man’s trip through “conversion therapy.”
Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, it’s a film that also solidifies Joel Edgerton’s skills as both an actor and filmmaker, one able to balance a complicated, troubling subject with grace and understanding.
Hedges channels Conley as Jared Eamons, an Arkansas high school senior struggling with his sexual identity. Already in the Bible Belt, Jared feels even more pressure to conform from his father’s (a terrific Russel Crowe) status as a pastor and soon-to-be ordained minister in the local Baptist church. Once Jared is forced to admit his feelings for men, church elders recommend a conversion therapy program led by Mr. Sykes (Edgerton).
Amid flashbacks to Jared’s path toward confessing his feelings, Hedges makes all the confusion feel heart-breakingly real. Jared, facing a strictly conservative community and the chance his parents may disown him, enters The Refuge Program with a sincere commitment to become the person everyone else wants him to be. There is a quiet war stirring in Jared as he takes his “moral inventory”, and Hedges is able to make him a sympathetic soul screaming for release via a restrained, beautifully insightful turn.
Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, shows us Jared’s eyes being opened through gradual episodes that resist any urge to demonize. Small choices, such as the way he frames a prayer circle at the dinner table or one wonderful scene between Jared and his family doctor (the always welcome Cherry Jones) show Edgerton’s respect for the fragility of reminding us that beyond the rhetoric of hot button issues are real lives being lived.
Jared’s father and mother (Nicole Kidman, also award-worthy) are not portrayed as villains, but rather as parents making choices based on the information they had at the time. The ways that both the information and the parents change acknowledges the religion/science debate without soapboxes, keeping the film’s viewpoint wisely intimate.
It is precisely this intimacy that fuels the film’s resonance, as one family’s story becomes a vessel for greater understanding. That’s no small achievement, and Boy Erased is no small triumph.