Just Be Who You Are … After I Tell You Who You Must Be
Review by Ken Burke
Well, faithful readers (the roughly 4,500 of you who keep coming around to find us each week [see the end of this posting, quite far below, for more details], even if there are lots of tradeoffs every time from among those who’ve just discovered the wonders to always be experienced here at Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark and those who—for reasons I can’t begin to comprehend—move on to other sources for their understandings of cinematic clarity), I’ve once again proven this funky-filmic-site will never be your one-stop-location for everything currently in release simply because—once again—other activities have limited me to having time to attend only one screening last week, which—once again—is playing in a limited number of domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters, not making a lot of money yet, compared to something like Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney) showing all over the place (4,141 domestic venues), raking in the dough (worldwide gross of $91.3 million on opening weekend, $78.2 million of that domestically) which may be a marvelous choice for a family outing (although Rotten Tomatoes [56% positive reviews] and Metacritic [50% average score] don’t support that concept very much) but it holds little interest for me. Originally, I
assumed that I'd want to see the newest Lisbeth Salander adventure, The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Fede Álvarez) given how much I’ve enjoyed all of what’s come before in this series (including the first 3 books written by Stieg Larsson, a rarity for me to explore the print originals that led to the movies' fine adaptations, even though I probably read at least a couple of them after the narratives were on screen), with the 2011 remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher) getting my highly-supportive-4-star-rating in one of the earliest Two Guys in the Dark postings ever (December 28, 2011 [although you must forgive me for the layout being far too word-heavy in those early days, needing more visuals]) where Rooney Mara provides a powerful presentation of Lisbeth, somewhat different from but equal to Noomi Rapace’s version in the original … Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009). … Spider’s Web’s also easily-accessible (2,929 domestic theaters) but hasn’t grossed anywhere near … The Grinch's income, taking in a worldwide total of only $16.9 million on opening weekend ($8.8 million of that domestically) possibly because of miserable critical response—RT offers only 41% positive reviews, MC an unusually-higher 43% average score (they’re normally notably lower than RT)—convincing me to skip it, as there were more pressing options on the calendar, leaving me with the much-more-limited (in both availability and ticket sales; more on both below) but critically-lauded Boy Erased, which I think would be much more worth your attention if you can endure its disturbing subject matter, then locate it somewhere.
Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Return with me now to the realm of “Based on a true story,” which makes the content of this film all the more sad given the grotesque assumptions of those who think gay-conversion-therapy is somehow a valid approach to changing how a person’s been born, even though the scripture-literalists-adherents of this concept of “salvation” for those who come/are forced to participate in these rituals truly believe they’re doing the work of God by “helping” homosexuals find their way back along the literal “straight” and narrow path to what’s been ordained as divine truth from the writings of a desert-dwelling-tribe who settled millennia ago in the general vicinity of the river Jordan (if you can somehow sense I’m no longer a true-believer despite being raised as a God-fearing-Catholic many decades ago then you must have the real calling of an investigative reporter or an intuitive private-eye). Garrard Conley’s well-received-autobiography recounting his traumatic-teenage-exploits has been adapted into this impactful film (using tactful-name-changes for the essential participants, including Conley), with the trauma of what happened to this young man in the name of Christian salvation coming across in a bluntly-grotesque-manner for those of us who totally reject attempts to re-engineer a person’s fundamental sexuality (despite what their biological accouterments—or, as some more bluntly put it, their “plumbing”—might indicate the focus “should” be), yet we can also find in this film some tolerance for how those true-believers—such as the protagonist’s parents—feel about these “wayward” children whose emerging homosexuality defies everything such adults want to honor about their strict, Bible-based, heterosexual-interpretation of “God’s will.” As this increasingly-troubled-teenager finds as he transitions from high-school to college, his male-attraction-inclinations leave him bewildered as to what’s happening to him, so, under pressure from his preacher-father, he agrees to join a gay-conversion-therapy-program where everything “deviant” about him is blamed on weaknesses in his heritage, confused/chosen sin on his part. What he encounters in this process speaks little to true compassion, acceptance of fact, openness to the full range of humanity but instead is more about blame, penance, and a skewed sense of “redemption.” You can find more details on how this resolves either in Conley’s book or by reading the spoiler-filled-review just below, with my encouragement to delve into this story in any way you can in hopes it will open your heart/confirm your acceptance of those whose very nature—through no choice, especially no fault, of their own—puts them at odds with our too-frequently-intolerant-“homonormative” culture.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: This narrative begins in a present time period that’s about 4 years back from what’s ultimately presented as the focal present of the plot (a common time-dislocation-tactic in cinematic-storytelling, whether fiction or docudrama, forcing us—at least in retrospect of seeing the entire film—to keep realizing how what appears in shown events as “now” must always be understood as to how it may truly be the past of the ultimate “now,” with those previous events contributing mightily to what the eventual present will become, even though the involved characters know not how any given “now” they’re experiencing will influence a later “now” they’ve yet to know as its events await manifestation [I’m trying to channel how Einstein might approach a film review; whaddya think?]), but even our boy’s primary “present” situation in his gay-“conversion”-encounters are dependent on a couple of lengthy flashbacks, so just to keep all this more easily understandable in explanation I’ll recount these events in chronological fashion although the film’s presentation is much more dynamic when we see what’s previously occurred in this protagonist’s life, leading him to the challenges he faces in the Love in Action “rehab” program, which functions more like a combination of AA, basic training, and jail for the young adults who’ve been entered into it. So, a few years ago from what ultimately becomes the present here we find high-school-senior Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) as a standard, well-behaved, obedient kid in Arkansas living with his Ford car-dealer/Baptist-preacher father, Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe—considerably beefier than in his Gladiator [Ridley Scott, 2000] days), and housewife/demure-spouse-and-mother, Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman). Jared’s a runner and a basketball player with a cheerleader sweetheart, Chloe (Madelyn Cline), although he’s the reserved one in this relationship, fending off Chloe’s nighttime advances in his car we might assume because of his Christian upbringing (and by-The Book [you know which one I mean] -father, yet when Jared tells his parents he and Chloe are headed out to the lake it’s clear the old man has an idea what for, even notes he and Nancy need some “lake” time of their own) but we later have to wonder if other forces weren’t more responsible for Jared’s refusal of Chloe’s eager willingness to get considerably more physical than just necking.
Once Jared’s broken off the romance with Chloe, he moves away to a somewhat-local-college where his sexual identity becomes even more confused when he meets fellow-student/running-buddy Henry (Joe Alwyn) who brings Jared to his church services one day—a much more raucous affair than Marshall would ever have presided over—then crashes in Jared’s room one night when Jared’s roommate is off somewhere else. Their after-dark-conversation soon results in Henry coming down from the top bunk, getting affectionate with Jared, anal-raping him, then expressing sorrow he can’t control his homosexual urges, which he’s also shared with a younger boy at his church. Even though Jared pushes Henry away he also finds himself strangely attracted to him, decides to go home to discuss his confusions with his parents only to find they’ve received an anonymous phone call from a guy claiming to be a counselor at the school telling them of Jared’s gay tendencies (he knows it was Henry, trying to ward off Jared revealing anything about his friend’s much-more-blatant-actions), which we know from another flashback also included interactions with sensitive gay artist Xavier (Théodore Pellerin). Much as he wants to love his son, Marshall can’t accept him as gay so he calls in a couple of church elders for advice (all of which has Nancy’s compliance, none of her input) resulting in Jared agreeing to attend another-somewhat-nearby (but far enough away Nancy and Jared must stay at a motel each night) 12-day conversion program, based on the concepts God doesn’t allow anyone to be born gay, that it comes about as the result of disgraced members in a family’s heritage along with sinful decisions on the part of self-chosen-homosexuals (you’d think such rationale comes more from the morbid Naturalism plays of writers such as Henrik Ibsen than the supposed lengthy chronicles of God’s love in the Bible, but repentance in lieu of damnation seems to be the operating principle in this psychologically—at times, physically—abusive program run by no-sympathy-for-your-sins Victor Sykes [Edgerton] and his minions). Even in this program’s early days Jared learns the likely intention is to confine him to this place for an unspecified extension of his “rehabilitation” (concerns are raised about his college curriculum where he’d be reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray  and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita ) with fellow attendee (inmate?) Gary (Troye Sivan) encouraging his new friend to “Fake it ‘till you make it” in order to survive this convoluted program of Biblical reverence, “therapy” sessions where you spew out your anger at your father (supposedly sitting across from you in an empty chair), PE, and swinging with all your might in a batting cage (there are mostly teenage boys in this program, but a few girls as well such as browbeaten Sarah [Jesse LaTourette]).
⇒Sykes is especially hard on hulking athlete Cameron (Britton Sear), finally bringing in his father and sister to beat him with a Bible to drive the devil from this kid's hurting heart, which is enough to encourage Jared to take action so he rushes into the main office where his belongings are daily put into a box (returned to him at 5pm when Nancy picks him up), grabs his cellphone to call Mom to come get him out of this place (everyone had seen another family rescue their son earlier, with the father condemning Victor and his entire enterprise) which Victor attempts to prevent when Nancy arrives but Cameron intervenes, allowing Jared to leave (he later finds out conflicted Cameron’s committed suicide). Marshall’s highly upset with his son for leaving the program, refusing to renounce his gay desires, but Nancy tells her son she’s sorry for having been so accepting of Marshall’s decisions, a situation which will now change. At this point we come to the 4-years-later-part with Jared living in NYC, happy with a newfound group of friends, author of a major magazine article describing his atrocious therapy experiences, which Mom reads with understanding and acceptance although Dad hasn’t yet found time to attempt it. Jared comes home for Thanksgiving, confronts Dad over his refusal to acknowledge the reality of his son, says if either of them is to change it’ll have to be Marshall, who finally asks the boy’s forgiveness, gives him a writer’s present of a prized pen (made with cedar wood from Israel) which he’d used to compose all his sermons, with Jared telling him he’s invited Mom to come to NYC for Christmas but Dad’s invited as well if he’s willing to deal with what he’ll find there. Pre-final-credits graphics tell us film-subject/original-author Garrard Conley’s still living in NYC with his husband, working on LGBTQ causes such as opposing gay conversion activities which remain legal in most of the U.S. despite the harm they’ve likely done to the non-heterosexuals who’ve endured these procedures. (Further, we’re told the irony of the real Victor Sykes—whoever he is; Edgerton’s character also is modified by a name change—who himself has a husband now, so we assume his fervent attempts to “rescue” gays from their self-inflicted “sins” was based on self-denial, which, apparently, he couldn’t maintain.)⇐
So What? Boy Erased is the second 2018 film to deal with negative aspects of so-called gay conversion therapy, the first one released toward the end of last summer, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan), with a critical consensus response strikingly similar to Boy …, 87% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, 69% average score at Metacritic—compared to Boy …’s RT 85% positives, MC 71% average score, even though a few reviews I’ve seen claim the former to be the better exploration of this topic (I didn’t see The Miseducation … for some now-forgotten-reason, but a summary of it makes it sound similar in many respects to Boy …, with Chloë Grace Moretz as the main teen being forced to deny her true nature, yet refusing to do so as she won’t see herself as a “deviant” defying “God’s will” while rejecting the insidious premise of the conversion concept, especially at the place where she’s been enrolled, so all I can directly respond to is Boy Erased, which I value more that the aggregate results at RT, MC even if my 4 stars would numerically be in the realm of RT’s 85% of supportive responses, given how I reserve my rare 4½- or 5-star-ratings for films of even more exceptional quality [this one’s very powerful, yet I find the few others I’ve lauded at even higher levels to contain aspects marking them as truly individual achievements in cinema; farther below in this posting is my usual link to the summary of all the reviews I’ve done so far to demonstrate my standards]). While I don’t know what might have been compressed, rearranged, changed (except the names of at least the main characters) from Garrard Conley's autobiographical account of these events (book of the same name, 2016), I do know Conley's been promoting the film in conjunction with Edgerton so I have to assume he’s pleased with the result, as I think he would be given how effectively such “therapy” is condemned (sadly, still legal in 36 of the U.S.A.’s 50 states, even though it’s likely harmed in some manner the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people who’ve been encouraged/forced into enduring some variation of its procedures). Edgerton’s certainly well-invested in this project (he talks about it some in the second link about his film also much farther below, although that interview session’s highlighted by some marvelous, heartfelt comments by Garrard’s mother, Martha Conley) having written the screenplay, directed it, as well as taking on the unsympathetic role (yet eerily-convincing) as the fundamentalist taskmaster of this ill-conceived-conversion-program (Sykes even admits he has no appropriate credentials to be running such an assault on these teenagers' lives).*
*While the opinions of just a few gay audience members for this film can’t stand for everyone who views it, this short featurette (3:03) from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about gay conversion therapy in Canada offers some solidly-supportive-reactions to Edgerton’s presentation.
Bottom Line Final Comments: As noted above, Boy Erased is yet another of my regular fascinations with well-produced, intriguing, independent cinema manifestations that are not only hard to find (this one’s been in only 77 domestic theaters after 2 weeks in release, the epitome of either a slow-rollout hoping for growing-word-of-mouth-interest or an upfront-admission from distributor Focus Features the audience for this powerful-but-unsettling-story is never going to be large enough to attract a massive response in a large number of locations) but also are likely to be so forgotten come awards-nomination-time all of their successes on-screen (such as Best Actor consideration for Hedges, Supporting Actress consideration for Kidman) are likely to be overlooked as the higher-hyped-contenders start finding their way into theaters after Thanksgiving; Boy …’s paltry box-office-take so far of only $1.4 million ($1.1 million of that in domestic grosses) doesn’t help awareness of this well-conceived, well-structured, well-presented story either, unless an intensely-effective-advertising-campaign or the chance spotlight of Golden Globe nominations should serve to refocus some attention on this impactful, effective, culturally-useful story a month or so from now into early 2019 when the various award-giving-organizations make their decisions as to what to honor from 2018. I’ll just say Hedges does a highly-admirable-job of displaying the confusion, shame, fear, defiance, ultimate acceptance of his character’s identity that should give some sense of inspiration (as best I know) to anyone going through similar personal trials as are depicted here; Kidman gives a believable sense of a woman who ultimately sees the stability of her son to be of greater value than the dogma her husband feels compelled to follow (I don’t perceive Marshall as a villain either, just a guy who honestly embraces an interpretation of a faith that doesn’t initially allow him to accept his son for whom he was born to be, with a thoughtful presentation of that sincere theological understanding from Crowe as a steadfast-but-troubled-man of his convictions); even as the entire narrative stays within the realm of simple surroundings, neutral cinematic processes, unfolding of personal—rather than divine—revelation, all of which keeps Edgerton’s approach in the realm of believable, troubling, contemporary-issue drama that demands to be seen, even if you have to keep an eye out for some future form of video release to even find it.
I think I’ve about hammered my comments on just 1 film this time appropriately into submission so I’ll wrap this up with my usual strategy of a Musical Metaphor to provide a final perspective of commentary but from the angle of the aural arts, which I admire almost as much as the visual ones. However, in that I’m giving you only 1 film review in this posting I’ll enhance my closing comments with a cluster of music that speaks to me in various ways about the themes of Boy Erased. I’ll start with Eric Burdon and the Animals’ “Its My Life” (from their 1966 The Best of the Animals album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJUI-NRDflU (their original 1965 recording, illustrated with various 1960s visuals, mostly of the band) because even though the lyrics focus on an angry young man trying to find a place in a demanding environment (“It’s a hard world to get a break in All the good things have been taken”), asking a woman he’s interested in if she can tolerate his rough attitude (“Are you gonna cry when I’m squeezin’ the rye Takin’ all I can get, no regrets”) it still speaks symbolically to Jared’s ultimate determination to not be bullied by his “conversion” experience to become someone he’s not (“It’s my life and I’ll do what I want It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want Show me I’m wrong, hurt me sometime But some day I’ll treat you real fine”). Just to give you a sense of how this metaphorically designates a determination to pursue an inner awareness even as the years continue to pass, here’s a later version of the song from 2011 with a considerably-different-lineup of the Animals in a video with sharp visuals, excellent instrumentation, although vocals are bit muddy except on the choruses (unlike the above video where the song comes through clearly but the images are somewhat grainy). However, I think Mom Nancy would also have a perspective on her son, his personal evolution, along with her evolving acceptance of who he ultimately knows himself to be (just as she accepted that understanding) so I’ll also offer a Metaphor from her final-realization-perspective, Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” (from his 1977 album The Stranger) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJWM5FmZyqU (a live performance with some of the lyrics below the screen at this site, along with many other links to Joel videos)—which I’ll also push forward into a much-later-live-performance (to show how the sentiments intended here don’t fade over the years) from 2006 at a Tokyo Dome concert, which also features some great instrumentation, along with lyrics Nancy could easily wish for her son once she learns to “take you just the way you are [… because] I need to know that you will always be The same old someone that I knew [as she works to achieve] What will it take ‘till you believe in me The way I believe in you I said I love you and that’s forever,” which ultimately comes true for Jared/Garrard on-screen, in real life. We should all be so fortunate; hopefully, we can be, very soon if not right away.
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Here’s more information about Boy Erased:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GCs3sXD2Hg (24:38 interview with director/actor Joel Edgerton, actors Nicole Kidman, Troye Sivan, original book author [and subject] Garrard Conley, and his mother Martha Conley)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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