Monday 4 February 2019

Notes on camp: "Boy Erased"

Boy Erased, the capable actor-turned-director Joel Edgerton's follow-up to 2015's notable The Gift, opens with a straight-edged young man in a buttoned-down shirt entering into an institution of some kind. We're teased into wondering just what sort of institution this upright sort - played by Manchester by the Sea's most upright Lucas Hedges - might be headed for. It's not the academy or seminary that the Hedges bearing would surely carry him towards; there's not a single sign of a young offender's jumpsuit, however, and during processing, our boy is allowed to hold onto his cellphone, so long as he promises there aren't any "inappropriate" numbers or photographs on it. Only when the guard on duty urges Hedges' Jared to "be straight with us", an exhortation that fair pops and crackles with irony, do we understand that this kid might not be able to be fully straight with anyone - for Jared is gay, and the institution to which he has been dispatched is a re-education camp for God-fearing young Christians suspected of homosexual thoughts and deeds.

You'd have to have been wearing blinkers not to have some awareness of such places. Edgerton's film draws on a 2016 memoir by the writer Garrard Conley, but it's already been beaten onto our screens by a slyly satirical comedy (1999's But I'm a Cheerleader, starring the recently resurgent Natasha Lyonne), an Oscar-nominated doc (2006's Jesus Camp), and last year's acclaimed indie The Miseducation of Cameron Post, all of which honed in on the controversial notion (and research would show it is no more than a notion, at best) of so-called "conversion therapy". Edgerton's study is the most steadily compiled: it's well made, and has the good fortune to land among us at a time when the very idea of masculinity is up for renewed reevaluation. Yet until its coda, it doesn't change shape much, which feels like a limitation. Like its protagonist, it is what it is - in this instance, sensitively handled awards bait - and proceeds accordingly.

For the most part, Edgerton's script flicks back and forth between the scenes in camp, yielding a measure of absurdist humour as Jared and his fellow inmates are schooled in playing baseball and generally comporting themselves in a traditionally manly fashion, and afterschool sequences where interactions with his folks - a blowsy Southern belle (Nicole Kidman) and her preacher husband (Russell Crowe), who lords over his church as a salesman might a car showroom - reveal the strictures our hero grew up within. Occasionally, a homework exercise in this present-day reality will spark a flashback to a formative moment in Jared's sexuality, though these seem hamstrung by the studio system's ongoing hesitancy around anything truly queer: the closest Jared gets to intimacy is as the victim of a dormroom rape. That's a shocking interlude, yes, but as Edgerton clues us in on how this kid ended up in this space, everything starts to feel dutiful in a way the electric The Gift never did, as if its writer-director were a bright literature student filing a B+ book synopsis. (His ever-sombre colour palette ensure it has been filed on the most tasteful of papers.)

The performances sustain it - and prove, once again, that Edgerton is one of the best actor's directors to have emerged in recent times. I'm not sure Hedges is quite as striking here as he was in Manchester by the Sea, but then Jared is by far the more contained part: hemmed-in, self-denying, with an especially expressive way of blinking that reminded me of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Jean-Dominique Bauby, himself trapped inside his own body. (The title refers to how Garrard Conley - Jared, as he's become for screen purposes - had his identity erased by others, but equally how he erased it himself, until he could only communicate in code.) There is considerable strength in depth among the supporting cast, some of it expected (Edgerton as the camp's foremost re-educator Mr. Sykes), some less so (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea as a hatchet-faced patroller of corridors). As the protagonist's folks, Kidman doesn't have much to do save being vaguely maternal beneath an unruly mane of Dolly Parton hair, but Crowe is very good, imbuing his newfound bluff solidity with the jovial quality of a pastor who truly believes that reclaiming a lost soul is a matter of filling in the right paperwork and then giving thanks to the Lord.

These players give individual scenes moments of life, and a coda reuniting Hedges and Crowe at the end of this moment is particularly strong, in part because Edgerton finally realises the father-son relationship is the most complicated one in the film: more compelling than therapy sessions that cannot work, and all the more moving for pushing towards a redefinition of forgiveness that is Christian in the best sense of the term. What precedes it suffers because everybody involved knew in their hearts that conversion therapy is a nonsense, and because even Edgerton, whether in the guise either of dramatist or Mr. Sykes, can't quite make the case for it that would generate authentic conflict. Jesus Camp remains the best film on this subject, sifting as that project did through hours of footage to find the cross-section of stories that best illustrated the absurdity and horror of the conversion camp. Boy Erased, by contrast, picks a side, a tone, a rhythm, and then sticks to it for five minutes shy of two hours. It makes for foursquare upmarket drama, and the matinee crowd - many card-carrying churchgoers among them - won't be the only ones choking back tears come the finale, yet I found myself wondering whether our movies, like our badges of gender and sexuality, wouldn't be a whole lot livelier were they a little more fluid.

Boy Erased opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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