Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Joe Alwyn, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Cherry Jones, Flea
Written by Joel Edgerton
Based on “Boy Erased,” by Garrard Conley
Directed by Joel Edgerton
Produced by Kerry Kohansky Roberts, Steve Golin, Joel Edgerton
Cinematography by Eduard Grau
Edited by Jay Rabinowitz
Music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans
Yes, you read that right, up above this graph, in the credits: the reviews of “Boy Erased,” a quietly but powerfully moving, touching, emotional, fact-based biographical drama that, along with several other film biographies, is one of the better films of the year, and “Overlord,” a dark, daunting, dire, overly-violent, overly-graphic and eventually un-scary and cliched science fiction and horror pulp Saturday matinee-style popcorn movie, are being grouped together, despite the obvious fact that these two movies could not be possibly more different in style, approach, entertainment value, overall value, and overall quality. While everyone should get up, go out and see “Boy Erased” in the theaters and think deeply about the very important, timely and emotional elements of that film’s story, human rights implications, civil rights implications and political and cultural implications, folks can, at the opposite end, politely skip the somewhat trying task of sitting through the gross-out, stomach-churning blood and guts overload of “Overlord” and wait for that movie’s probable quick trek to cable, on-demand, sales, rentals and other ancillary markets. Both films are being released this month, November, 2018, and while it’s interesting to note the disparity between these movies, it’s also somewhat distressing to think that some folks would choose to see “Overlord”—when it’s clear that they should be seeing “Boy Erased.” “Overlord” would have been a better summer movie—released for the summer crowd as a pure summer escapist excursion amid the superhero, comic book and action-adventure spectacles and blockbusters. “Boy Erased” is a classic autumn-season, awards-season prestige drama that deserves to draw patrons by itself, because of not only the aforementioned overall quality of the film, but also, again, because of the immense importance of the film’s messages, themes, lessons and morals.
“Boy Erased” quickly joins “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Operation Finale” and “First Man” easily as four of the best films so far in 2018—and, yes, all four of these movies are fact-based biographical dramas based on real-life events. “Boy Erased” tells the gripping, scary, frightening, real-life-dystopian-fascist-religious-craziness tale of a youth—in real life, Garrard Conley but in the film, the character Jared Eamons–whose crazed, confused, conflicted, overly-religious and blatantly homophobic fire-and-brimstone car dealer-Baptist preacher father, Marshall Eamons (played with delightfully Southern craziness and confusion by an excellent Russell Crowe, once again breaking out of his comfort zone and fully inhabiting a unique, powerful and scary character) bizarrely and insanely places Jared in a so-called “gay conversion therapy” institution when it appears that Jared is actually attracted to men. This would sound sci-fi and suspense-related in a story brainstorming session, but unfortunately—and flat-out insanely, ignorantly and stupidly—this actual horrendous practice—of having gay men and women placed in programs designed to change their natural, genetic sexual orientation from gay to straight—is actually practiced in places in the modern-day, 21st-century United States of America. Really. Unbelievable. And that’s not a partisan, biased, political statement of horror, amazement and disgust at the existence of such stupidity. Because, as literally thousands of doctors, mental health officials, health officials, psychologists, psychiatrists, politicians, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, human behavior experts, sexual orientation experts, gender and genetics experts and scores of other professionals have noted for centuries now, homosexuality is simply an ingrained, very real, deep-rooted, prominent and acknowledged part of human history, sexuality and just plain existence. There is zero argument on this point, and this very reality—the actual existence of homosexuality and bisexuality and other non-straight forms of human sexuality in humankind throughout human history—provides the basis for the real-life scariness, tension, conflict, horror, suspense, tragedy and drama that is so intelligently, intellectually presented throughout “Boy Erased.”
While Jared loves his parents, crazy dad Marshall and his doting, initially-complacent-and-dutiful wife, Nancy Eamons, a hairdresser, he at first follows their instructions and tries to actually go through the gay conversion therapy madness. Jared puts on the facility’s drone-like uniform—white shirts and dress pants—shows up, does what is required, submits his thoughts in crazy, alleged group therapy sessions, and even agrees to give up his personal belongings during the days that he’s in the facility’s programs during the day. But Jared’s no fool, and he’s stronger than anyone in the film—his parents, his parents equally-crazy friends and acquaintances and neighbors and co-workers; the other participants at the crazy facility; the facility’s counselors and staffers; and everyone else in this waylaid, backwards Southern town where folks just simply cannot accept the simple fact that gay people exist in the world. Jared knows who he is, he eventually comes to realize that the so-called gay conversion therapy is stupid, ignorant, idiotic, homophobic harassment and hatred cloaked in the form of an organized, open institution that attempts to represent itself as right and correct and approved and welcomed by society, and he eventually comes to realize that all of the craziness—his parents, the institution, the harassment, the hatred, they hypocrisy—is wrong, horrendously and frighteningly wrong—and he will have to do what he can to stop it, bring it down and end it.
And it’s no spoiler to note that that is exactly what Jared does—Garrard Conley’s real-life nationally- and internationally-read articles on his experiences with these insane people and the bizarre institution his parents put him in to end his being gay helped show the insanity, stupidity and ridiculousness of so-called gay conversion therapy and the equally stupid thought processes and behavior of the wayward, confused people associated with these programs. There is a continuing, aggressive movement worldwide—including in the United States—to legally ban gay conversion therapy. And that movement is continuing strongly in 2018. A brief written addendum at the end of “Boy Erased” notes this fact, and the fact that this bizarre practice is still actually practiced in some confused places in the United States—at the same time that the governments of fourteen states and Washington, D.C., have legally banned gay conversion therapy from being practiced, according to several media and governmental sources. Thus, the movie “Boy Erased” retains an inherent suspense as Jared starts out initially as a good camper in the program, but, again, slowly and surely confidently comes to realize that the entire exercise is wrong—and, concurrently, he also starts to more aggressively and confidently embrace and welcome his own gay sexual identity and he completely stands against his father and his father’s comrades in evil.
Lucas Hedges delivers a bravura, brave and consistently rock-solid performance as Jared, giving us a slow-burn character development that perfectly aligns with the story and plot development—and even the concurrent character development of some other prominent characters. That aspect of the story—other characters’ development–will not be revealed, but Hedges’ strong performance accurately presents Jared as a true hero—Jared becomes not only a heroic figure to himself, but to other gay people, to other family members, and to others in the local, regional, national and even international communities—gay and straight. To watch Hedges present Jared as a hero but also a real, life, breathing, down-to-earth, steadied, grounded and very personal, approachable—and lovable—human being is a true joy. Hedges simply delivers a stand-out, award-worthy performance as Jared, presenting a complex, conflicted, confused—and scared—human being that anyone can relate to—again, gay or straight.
And Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Nancy, Jared’s mom, simply deliver strongly in their portrayals, right along with Hedges. These performances in “Boy Erased” by Crowe and Kidman represent some of these actors’ best work in years, and that’s saying something, as both have consistently performed well in a variety of roles, movies and genres. But for these native Australians to play some diehard, deep-rooted, Arkansas-based Southern religious and conservative and anti-gay zealots is a bit of a stretch—heck, it’d be a stretch for most actors, no matter where they’re from—and Crowe and Kidman deliver. Both actors, much like Hedges, keep their acting, voices, body movements and overall characterizations steadfastly grounded, steady and down-to-earth—they play real people, not Hollywood stereotypes. They are also conflicted by what they are doing—there is an underlying love and respect among this troubled family—despite what Marshall is doing to Jared—and as the family deals with Jared’s homosexuality, the underlying idiocy of the program, their long-held conservative belief systems and the modern-day challenges that threaten that belief system and homosexuality in general, all the while Marshall, Nancy and Jared remain real people that people can relate to. The Eamons could be those neighbors down the street or around the corner, and their problems could be the problems of those neighbors, co-workers—or—gasp—family members in anyone’s community.
This firm grounding in real life—also presented by an excellent ensemble cast of actors, some of whom have to portray some nasty, biased, backwards conservative country folks—makes sense, of course, since “Boy Erased” is based on Conley’s real-life experiences. There’s no reason to inflate or over-dramatize or over-traumatize the story, characters, settings or story plot points, since the basic, real-life, inherent story is interesting, frightening, suspenseful, relevant, emotional and dramatic enough. Credit goes to director, screenwriter, co-producer and actor Joel Edgerton for keeping his actors—and the story and the story’s presentation—continually grounded. Actually, Edgerton deserves a ton of credit for “Boy Erased”—besides strongly and tightly directing the film, he wrote the screenplay, based on Conley’s memoir of the same name, he co-produced—and he played an essential role in the movie. Edgerton—also bravely—plays the story’s villain, a sorry, sordid soul named Victor Sykes, who is an equally-conflicted, hypocritical, scared—and harassing, corrupt and horribly abusive—leader of the gay conversion therapy program that is attended by Jared. Sykes is that classic cowardly, dishonest, two-faced religious-fanatic, pseudo-conservative hypocrite—a closed gay man who is leading an actual gay conversion therapy program! Sykes is so conflicted, he is trying to convert gay men—while also dealing not so well with his own gay tendencies.
The interactions between Sykes and the so-called therapy program participants is frightening—once again, it’s all the more frightening considering that much of what is portrayed in the movie actually occurred in real life. Sykes and his abusive, harassing comrades literally abuse the program participants in ways that are just plain illegal. They illegally confiscate program participants’ personal belongings; they read private journals of program participants; they verbally and mentally and physically abuse—that’s right, physically abuse—program participants; they constantly berate, insult, talk down to and scream and yell at program participants; and they even go absurd lengths to extend program participants’ participation in their program far too long in blatant attempts to simply milk more money from the attendees’ parents. Not to mention the overall legally-questionable aspects of the program itself—the program leaders consistently spew lies, bias, propaganda, untruths, misstatements and piles of psycho-babble at the program participants—all in the name of ending their gay sexual orientation. Again, it’d be unbelievable if it wasn’t actually true.
Edgerton, Hedges, Crowe, Kidman and numerous other superb actors in “Boy Erased” obviously connected on a cohesive scale during filming, and the teamwork required to present such an edgy, difficult, complex and layered story, plot, point, biography and film is evident, as the film shines throughout on all filmic levels.
In the end, Edgerton and his cast and crew—and, always, through the inspiration of his experiences, writing and activism, Conley, too—present a film that is extremely timely and important in 2018. They present an array of relevant themes, messages, morals and lessons about acceptance, inclusion—and love—of people of all sexual orientation; about the obvious dangers of homophobic attitudes and racism and discrimination in general; about the abuse of power that sometimes occurs in the name of religion and strict, orthodox religious teachings; of the dangers and idiocy and illegality of so-called gay conversion therapy; of the abusive nature of some people pretending and masquerading as therapists in various areas of society; of the importance of just simply accepting people for who they are; and of the importance of fighting against discrimination and ignorance and hatred toward gay people; and the importance of fighting against discrimination and ignorance toward all people.
A filmgoer presented with this rich array of thoughts, issues and insight, wrapped in such a dramatic and emotional well-acted, well-written, well-directed and well-produced biographical film drama, can’t ask for much more this autumn, holiday and awards season.
Starring Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Gianny Taufer, Pilou Asbaek, Bokeem Woodbine
Written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith
Story by Billy Ray
Directed by Julius Avery
Produced by J. J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber
Cinematography by Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner
Edited by Matt Evans
Music by Jed Kurzel
Now, about that “Overlord” movie—of course, talking about this pulp sci-fi horror World War action adventure war mash-up popcorn movie is a significant gear-shift from talking about “Boy Erased.” “Overlord,” while not complexly worth noting on the same high level as “Boy Erased,” did have an advance buzz among the sci-fi, horror, video game, superhero, action-adventure and war movie genre buff crowds in the weeks and months leading up to its release—not only because of its promising-sounding story and setting and mash-up of genres, but because mega-producer/director/writer J. J. Abrams was attached to the project as a co-producer. Alas, all fans will be in for a bit of a letdown with “Overlord,” which is a shame, because the movie had some promise—due in part to that genre mash-up, what appeared to be an initially promising storyline and Abrams’ involvement. However, somewhere along the line, someone decided to let “Overlord” be an R movie and include some horrendous, unneeded and wholly gratuitous—and ugly—blood, guts and gore scenes that bring the entire project down.
“Overlord” did not need to be an R film, did not need the graphic blood, guts and gore, did not need the head-pounding intensity—of story, characterization, special effects, sound effects and even music–and definitely did not need many of the movie’s cringy, nearly-unwatchable gross-out and stomach-churning overly-violent scenes. If the movie had been toned down to a PG-13 or even a PG, and some of the darker, more graphic violence had been toned down to an “Indiana Jones” or “Force Ten From Navarone” style of war action, the movie would have worked much better—and would draw a wider audience. But “Overlord” ends up being too violent, gross and gut-wrenching as presented, and that loud, banging intensity wears thin throughout the movie.
Again, the initial premise is promising: A cliched, stereotypical, but still-lovable crew of American soldiers—the usual mix of ethnicities, names, styles and personalities and backgrounds, including the heavily-accented New York Italian type, the macho blond golden boy who just happens to be an explosives expert, the young good-hearted and well-meaning innocent soldier, and many others picked from 1940s World War II Central Casting War Movie Guidelines, are flown into enemy territory—on the night before D-Day–on a largely-suicidal mission to invade a small French German-occupied town, somehow evade the hundreds of German soldiers and officials who are all over the town, and destroy a crucial communications and logistical tower. That’s the initial premise, but when the soldiers—well, some of them—land, they stumble upon a mysterious underground Nazi experimental lab where mad, truly mad, scientists are working on serums intended to transform humans into super beings that could be members of the ultimate super-power, super-human war machine army. Of course, things never go well when mysterious underground labs run by mad scientists are discovered by soldiers carrying high-powered weapons, and the soldiers’ mission quickly changes course to not only destroying the tower, but stopping whatever insane experiments are being conducted in the tower’s basement.
Along the way, the soldiers align themselves with a beautiful young French girl and her adorably cute younger brother, and their mission evolves to protect and save these two—along with the rest of the town—also.
This mish-mash of sci-fi, horror, action-adventure and World War II war adventure does sound promising—and, again, it all could have been promising. But director Julius Avery and screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith, working from a story idea by Ray, destroy most hopes of an entertaining film by insisting on including the aforementioned overall gruesomeness. Among the extreme nastiness in “Overlord” is not one, but two extended torture sequences; an overlong physical battering of a bound person that is one of those torture sequences; a man impaled on a hook—much like in the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”—that is part of the other torture scene; a sequence where a man turns into a creature with bones grossly protruding from his skin; a scene where a man has his head literally bashed in; a scene where a tube is grossly pulled from a man’s stomach; a scene where the little boy is horrendously caught between live fire, with bullets whizzing by and around him; a man burned to death by a flamethrower; and numerous scenes of people shot to death in overly-bloody manners.
None of this—literally none of this—needed to be presented at the level of violent graphic intensity that the filmmakers included in “Overlord.” There are ways and means to present, suggest or even show violence and violent acts in a movie without the gratuitous inclusion of blood and gore splattered all over the screen. And there are ways to present, suggest or even show violence and violent acts in a tense, suspenseful and scary manner without that inclusion of graphic violence. But “Overlord” ends up being not too tense, not too suspenseful, and not too scary—precisely because of the story, script and direction missteps involving not just the violence, but the pacing and timing, also. The film desperately needed to occasionally slow down, take a breath, and let the tension, scares and frights build in a suspenseful, slow-burn manner—but that never happens. The movie just bangs the viewer over the head with a constant barrage of action, intensity, special effects, grossness and violence that eventually strips the movie from any attempts at sci-fi, fantasy or horror suspense or scares.
The acting, though, in “Overlord” is strong. Jovan Adepo—who, by the way, was raised in Waldorf, Md., and attended Bowie State University in Prince George’s County, Md.—plays Boyce, the young, somewhat-innocent, caring soldier with a big heart. His character development as the story moves somewhat forward is noticeable, as Boyce is forced to confront his own fears, take some strong action, and learn to be a hero in most challenging circumstances. Adepo presents Boyce’s quick acceptance of his heroic fate in a grounded, approachable manner, and he keeps Boyce likeable, which is essential to keeping the viewer’s interest in the story and the movie. Wyatt Russell—the matinee-idol-looking son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn—plays an unlikeable character, Ford, who lets his more-violent tendencies take over to the detriment of his crew and mission. While looking good and displaying the same levels of presence, good looks and intensity as his parents—if you look closely, you can see a little bit of “Escape From New York’s” Snake Plissken and “The Thing’s” MacReady in Wyatt’s eyes, body movements and voice—Russell also presents Ford as a bit of a crazy, unhinged and violent soldier whose emotions get the best of him—not exactly a hero, but not exactly a villain, either. It’s a gutsy character for Russell, but he pulls it off well. The supporting cast is strong, and the beautiful Mathilde Ollivier is cute, sexy and captivating as the French girl Chloe, who ends up helping the soldiers with their mission.
However, the actors’ acting can’t eventually save “Overlord” from its overly-violent tendencies. Like so many movies, in all genres, too much violence ends up numbing the movie and numbing viewers’ minds to the point where most interest is lost, and the project largely ends up mediocre and muddling in the end.
Somewhere, somehow, the idea—not exactly new or original, of course, as it’s been presented hundreds of times in hundreds of movies before—of mixing sci-fi, fantasy, horror, action-adventure and World War II war action still remains interesting and approachable and the basis for a good, entertaining, fun movie that could satisfy the genre expectations of scores of moviegoers. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, most noticeably, of course, already achieved this feat with the Indiana Jones movies, and 2017’s “Wonder Woman” just recently was set during World War I, and scores of others have also succeeded in mixing together these styles in various movies and television shows, but the idea still remains intriguing. There must be more fantastical stories that can be set during World War II that can successfully combine science fiction, fantasy and horror against the backdrop of the second World War in an entertaining manner. However, “Overlord,” alas, despite its attempts at being entertaining, in the end just isn’t that movie.