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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Boy Erased, Review: Let the gay have their way

Boy Erased, Review: Let the gay have their way

Homosexuality is not a state of mind, a disease or a matter of choice. While we are getting increasingly aware of these facts in many parts of the world, there are at least 35 states in the USA where gay conversion centres try to rid the inmates of this ‘abnormality’ through therapy and methods that are both conventional and unconventional. The memoirs of one boy who was sent to such a home form the basis of Boy Erased, directed by actor Joel Edgerton. Though the film is not a classic, it is recommended viewing, and some of the scenes will not get easily erased for quite some time.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of Marshall (Russell Crowe), a successful car dealer and Baptist preacher, and Nancy (Nicole Kidman), a hairdresser. (Baptists are a Christian faith order). Jared leads a well-adjusted, happy life at home, school, and on weekends. He is secretly gay and, weeks after breaking up with his girlfriend and starting college, reluctantly comes out to both his parents after a classmate, Henry (Joe Alwyn), rapes him. Marshall consults two of his seniors and signs him up for a gay therapy conversion, at a Love in Action (LIA) centre of former gays, to which Jared reluctantly agrees.

Weeks into his therapy, Jared makes friends with other gay attendees, also seeking to become straight. Jared finds out that converters are being verbally and mentally abused by the therapist. He challenges chief therapist Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) when the latter suggests his father doesn’t like him. After talking with Jared over the phone, Nancy removes Jared from the programme and eventually takes Jared home, much to Victor’s disappointment. Now, Marshall and Jared have to reconcile to the facts that he is gay and that father and son love each other, and the two truths need not be mutually exclusive.

Set in Arkansas, small-town America, Boy Erased is the story of Garrard Conley (Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family, published by Penguin Random House in 2016; based on events that took place ten years earlier) and is written for the screen by occasional director Joel Edgerton. It’s a tight script, even at 1 hour 54 minutes, which is remarkable. It is also stark and bare, with the only true revelry seen towards the end. The often touted credo “Fake it till you make it”, gets an entirely new meaning in this film. Repeated often, it suggests that you should go along with the therapy, even if it means lying about your fears and hates, till you actually begin to hate and fear personalities like your parents. In a marketing gimmick, LIA asks its inmates to keep everything confidential but insists on getting intimate details of the sinful traits of the entire family of the subjects. Just to humour them, Jared’s mother fills in two false answers, to provide grist to the mill.

Basing it on a memoir, with the real Boy still around for consultation does make it easy for the director. Yet, “I didn’t feel qualified quite simply because I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community,” he said. Since then, he met Conley in February 2017, took his advice in casting and has been made an Honorary Member of the LGBTQ community. Once he got down to the job, he chose his cast well and also counter-poised his lows and highs in the narrative very efficiently.

Four scenes stand out for sheer brilliance: in the basketball stadium, where the ball keeps hitting a novice; when Jared throws a stone at a male model showing illuminated billboard; when Jared is stalked in the toilet and called a faggot, within the centre, by an attendant (Flea); where he confronts Victor for extracting false confessions and condemnations. The former has a touch of the comic, not common in the film. I am not too happy with the title. For sure, Girl Interrupted (1999), about a girl who spent 18 months in a mental institution, must be playing on the mind of the author, but this film needed a fresh new title.

Edgerton let Nicole Kidman do things her way, until she told him that she wants to be directed! Remember, Edgerton has only one directorial credit before this, the much acclaimed The Gift. He hit it off with Russell Crowe from the word go, and they worked as buddies. All three are Australian, and that must have helped. Nicole’s wig is noticeable, and Crowe has a paunch, with no action scenes whatsoever. But then that is what acting is all about, isn’t? Edgerton s lucky that he got to sign all the actors he approached first. Lady Bird actor Lucas Hedges is 21, plays an 18 year-old and told New York Magazine that he’s not totally straight. “I recognise myself as existing on that spectrum: Not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual,” Hedges said. That might have had a part to play in the performance. Add to that those expressive eyes and that faraway look.

For himself, Joel chose the most negative role, of the master manipulator, and to his credit that the director is largely invisible in the scenes he is part of. Britton Seer has a complicated role and acquits himself well. Flea strikes terror by his demeanour. Joe Alwyn as Henry, Xavier Dolan as Jon and Theodore Péllerin as Xavier play the boys Jared is attracted to and Jesse La Tourette is Sarah, with whom Jared begins to bond, till she is shifted to another building.

How ruthless is the programme can be gauged from the fact that the management tears out a short story that Jared had written in his journal as part of a college project. Although it is a completely straight love story between a boy and a girl, Sykes finds gay innuendo in it and it is confiscated.

Boy Erased is a serious film about an issue that has affected more than 700,000 Americans. It may not invoke the same response in India that it did in the Western world, but gay communities here are now consolidating their rights after a court judgement in their favour. There are no statistics available for conversion centres in India, but it is common knowledge that religion frowns upon the LGBTQ community and many quacks profess to have a cure for the ‘disease’. Cherry Jones as Dr. Muldoon has one of the most important lines in the film, “I carry the Bible in one hand and science in the other, and it is not easy balancing the two,” is the gist of what she says. How beautifully does that line sum it al up!

Boy Erased is dark, bleak film, shot mostly in dark, bleak locations, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. We sympathise almost naturally with the differently abled who are incurable, and we must learn to empathise with the LGBTQ community rather than treat them as outcasts on account of their sexual orientation. You can neither wish them away nor get them ‘cured’ at conversion centres, which declare, “You cannot be born homosexual!” If love is supreme, religion should not come in the way of accepting alternate sexual behavior-- is the clear message in the film. We do see the preacher deliver a sermon, and yet the film does very little sermonising, letting the events speak for themselves. And thank God for that.

Rating: *** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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