I was gay.
Now then, before you start thinking to yourself that maybe I was some Conversion Therapy success story let me reassure that this is most certainly not what my testimony is about.
However, it was this side of my personal experience that left me in tears throughout much of Joel Edgerton's directorial debut, Boy Erased, a film currently in the midst of its arthouse run courtesy of Focus Features and a film destined to be remembered come awards season.
Based upon an autobiographical best-seller by Garrard Conley, Boy Erased tells the story of a Baptist preacher's son, here going by the name of Jared and played by the increasingly remarkable Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), whose life is pretty much already planned for him as a hunky and attractive athlete from smalltown, middle class Arkansas with college awaiting and a beautiful girlfriend in the wings waiting for the inevitable marriage.
Then, it happens.
Jared announces to his parents that he might be gay.
This was the first of multiple times in Boy Erased that I felt my insides crying nearly as intensely as the tears streaming down my face, my entire being lost somewhere between empathy and post-traumatic flashbacks as Jared's parents, a clearly shook yet still loving mother (Nicole Kidman) and, adversely, a completely shell-shocked father (Russell Crowe), struggle to integrate this impossible to accept news from their one and only offspring.
Of course, we already know the truth. We know that Jared's parents simply can't accept this news from their son and Jared finds himself shipped off to Love in Action, a real life program that in 2012 changes its name to Restoration Path. Joel Edgerton plays the facility's program director, Victor Sykes, whose self-confessed one time straying from the "straight" and narrow led to his lifelong passion for helping others avoid his "mistakes." Sykes runs the program just as you'd imagine - a sort of boot camp meets detention facility where these young people are sent by parents who spend thousands of dollars hoping that their loved ones can be restored.
Yet, there's something a little bit different going on in Boy Erased, a reality that Conley captures in his book and a reality that maintains its presence in writer-director Edgerton's screenplay.
That something different? It's love.
It may not be love like you or I experience it.
Heck, it may not even be love like you or I would ever want it.
But, there's love here or at least some semblance of love that guides the actions of nearly everyone involved here with the possible exception of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, whose portrayal as a particularly sadistic Love in Action staffer is by far the film's most chilling.
But Jared's parents? There's never really any doubt that they love their kid. Crowe's Marshall, while all beefed up here, isn't some behemoth monstrosity but a thoughtful, deeply religious man on the verge of ordination into Baptist ministry whose entire worldview is shifted by Jared's revelation. He's not trying to be cruel, he's trying to be loving it's just a kind of loving that you and I, and maybe even most Christians, can't quite identify with.
But then again, who knows?
As Nancy, Jared's mother, Kidman is almost, but not quite, the mother that we want her to be. She has clear misgivings about Love in Action, but goes along with it because that's what a Baptist preacher's wife should do. But there's that maternal side, deeply maternal side, that's still there and still present and still ready to do whatever it takes to protect the son that she loves.
Yes, she loves. She really, really loves.
Heck, in some weird ass way even Edgerton's Sykes actually loves even if that love gets lost behind baseball diamond humiliations and verbal beatdown after verbal beatdown. Edgerton simply never lets us forget that Sykes is also human.
That's what I tried to remember the most as I watched Boy Erased, sob after sob I tried to remember the humanity of those flawed, human beings trying to make the right choices with the wrong information.
I couldn't help but remember that time when I was gay.
Or at least they thought I was gay.
I wasn't gay. I was a scared little boy whose mother reported sexual abuse by a neighbor to a church elder ill-equipped to address such devastating news.
The questions I received sitting alone in a sterile room with an equally sterile elder weren't designed to figure out if I was hurt, but they were designed to figure out if I might be gay.
"You're homosexual," I heard them say.
Then, I was shunned and the world that I'd always loved went away.
It would be years before I would figure out my own truth, not because I went to some conversion therapy program but because I finally figured out who I loved and how I loved and what I felt and I began to read news stories about this same denomination where I had grown up and how they had done the very same thing to others just like me.
The real story upon which Boy Erased is based occurred, almost unfathomably, in 2004 though I suppose it shouldn't be unfathomable since conversion therapy continues to be an accepted practice with conversion therapy toward minors illegal in a mere 14 states.
Again, to his credit, Edgerton doesn't demonize these people and he's chosen a heavyweight cast here capable of portraying the internal and external nuances of human beings doing inherently harmful things for what are mostly the right reasons.
Speaking of heavyweight, one simply can't close out a review of Boy Erased without giving an abundance of kudos to the young but increasingly impressive Lucas Hedges, whose best work up to now has primarily been in supporting roles but who here proves he's more than capable of headlining a motion picture even opposite such standouts as Crowe and Kidman when they're at the top of their game.
While not necessarily a flawless motion picture, Boy Erased is unquestionably one of 2018's most challenging and unforgettable ones. It's a film I didn't necessarily want to watch, but needed to watch and I'm sure glad I did. Featuring one of the year's best ensembles, Boy Erased is a stunning, beautifully crafted and impossible to erase film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic