Boy Erased

Posted on November 1, 2018 at 5:20 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic, disturbing rape scene
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

“Boy Erased” is the second major feature film released in 2018 about Christian “gay conversion” facilities (the documentary “Far from the Tree” touched on gay conversion therapy). It is based on the experience of and expose by Garrard Conley, “Boy Erased” might better be called “Boy Ineradicable” because it is the story of a college student who is at first genuinely grateful to be sent to the conversion facility to be “cured,” but there realizes, contrary to and because of that experience, that those who do not understand that he is healthy and love him as he is and for who he is — those are the people in need of conversion.

Home movies show us Jared (as he is called in the film, played by Lucas Hedges) as an only child growing up with devoted and loving parents. His father, Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a preacher and a prosperous owner of a car dealership. He is a sincere and honest man of faith, preaching redemption, not fire and brimstone. Jared’s mother is Nancy (Nicole Kidman), with blonde bouffant hair, perfect manicure, and sparkly sense of style. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace; He for God only, she for God in him.”

Jared is a high school basketball player with a pretty cheerleader girlfriend and a brand new car as a birthday gift. But he pushes her away when she tries to get physical, telling her he wants to wait. In college, a handsome student invites him to join him in running and come to his church — and then he rapes Jared. Afterward, he cries, confesses he has done it before, and begs Jared not to tell. And then he pretends to be a counselor, and calls Jared’s parents to tell them that their son has been engaging in homosexual activity.

Jared at first denies it, and does not tell them the truth about the rape. But then he confesses that he does think about men. Marshall consults with senior clergy, and packs Jared off to what begins as a twelve-day live-out program run by a group gruesomely called Love in Action,” run by Victor Sykes (writer/director Joel Edgerton). Sykes tells the young people sent to his facility to make a moral inventory and to list all family members who have sinned, helpfully giving a list of categories to assign, from gang activity to gambling, alcoholism and drug abuse, and homosexuality. “None” is not an acceptable answer.

At first, Jared tries to change. But as he witnesses the abusive tactics, from humiliation to “recommendations” that the participants be switched from live-out, short-term care to live-in care for an indeterminate period, he begins to understand that he is not the one with the problem. Later, we see how his mother and father diverge in their ability to accept him for who he is.

Edgerton’s writing, directing, and performance are all first-rate here. He has said that the issue of imprisonment has scared and fascinated him all his life, and he powerfully creates the sense of claustrophobia and abandonment of the Love in Action facility, and the inept but extremely damaging techniques that exemplify the experiences of almost 700,000 people. His fellow Aussies Crowe and Kidman create real, human portraits, not caricatures. Kidman has two outstanding scenes showing us how Nancy resolves the conflicts between what she has been taught and the love of her son. In his big scene, Crowe shows us a man who is struggling with that conflict. “I sought the counsel of wiser men,” he says, and really, that is what it is all about. How do we decide who is wiser? The information about the main characters at the end provides a powerful coda. Flea is fine in a small role as one of the instructors at the facility, who confesses his own sins and tries to teach the participants how to stand in a manly way.

Hedges continues to impress with his exceptionally thoughtful performances, following his work in “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird,” and the upcoming “Ben is Back.” He shows us Jared’s vulnerability but also his resilience, and the essential decency that leads him to be true to himself because of his empathy for what the others are going through. This movie should do that for us as well.

Parents should know that this film concerns “gay conversion” with abusive and homophobic activities, a brutal rape scene, sexual references, some strong language, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: Why did Jared’s parents have different ideas about what was best for him? Who are the “wiser” people you consult for advice and why?

If you like this, try: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “But I’m a Cheerleader”

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Rotten Tomatoes Welcomes More Diverse Critics

Posted on August 30, 2018 at 10:18 am

Rotten Tomatoes has made a very important step forward in promoting diversity with an announcement about its revised policy for accepting critics. As a critic who has been on Rotten Tomatoes almost since it began, I am delighted.

Copyright Rotten Tomatoes 2018

In revamping our Critics Criteria, we sought to bring the criteria into better alignment with the way media works today, to promote the inclusion of more voices that reflect the varied groups of people who consume entertainment, and to maintain the high standards we’ve always set for inclusion in the group of Tomatometer-approved critics.

When assessing applications from those wishing to be a Tomatometer-approved critic, or a Tomatometer-approved publication, we now take into consideration four key values as well as a revised set of eligibility requirements. These values are Insight, Audience, Quality, and Dedication, and you can find a full breakdown of each value here.

Movie critics in general, including those on Rotten Tomatoes, are overwhelmingly white males. Filmmakers like Meryl Streep and Brie Larson have complained that this lack of diversity does not fairly represent the experiences and perspectives of movie audiences. Rotten Tomatoes’ revised criteria reflect not just outreach to diverse voices but a thoughtful reassessment based on the wider range of platforms for criticism, including podcasts and videos. They make their commitment clear with a link in the announcement to invite other critics to apply.

This comes just after Chaz Ebert announced on Rogerebert.com its new gender-balanced roster of critics, five men and five women, including POCs, with more as contributors. I am very proud to be a part of this group, and to be the site’s first female assistant editor, and very happy to see critics as diverse as our readers.

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Interview: The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s Chloe Grace Moretz, Desiree Akhavan, and Mathew Shurka

Posted on August 7, 2018 at 3:42 pm

Copyright FilmRise 2018
Sundance winner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” takes place in 1993, when a teenager is sent to a Christian “gay conversion” program something between boarding school, boot camp, rehab, and prison. Chloe Grace Moretz gives a performance of great subtlety and sensitivity in the title role. My friend and fellow critic Leslie Combemale and I spoke to Moretz, director Desiree Akhavan and gay conversion survivor and activist Mathew Shurka about the film.

I always think that one of the greatest challenges an actor can have is a part like this one where your character is so much an observer, with no big speeches.

Chloe Grace Moretz: What’s beautiful about the film is that it really is an ensemble piece. It’s called “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” but I walk through it with you guys, perceiving and understanding and taking in and comprehending this space that I’ve been thrust into. We shot the movie chronologically. We only had 23 days to shoot the movie. It was wonderful because we just walked through each beat. Because we didn’t have much rehearsal time, there wasn’t much to do other than feel and hear and listen and perceive.

Because my character didn’t have a lot of lines, all this stuff is happening to her and around her and she’s having all these projections put on her about of what she is and what her problems are. And all she says is, “I don’t think so.” It all happens in her head and it was really fun for me to play with that and depict it all through my face and my eyes. It’s what I like doing best as an actor, ever since I was a little girl. It’s always been something I enjoy, showing context and subtext in my head and having it pushed it out through my eyes, not having to vocalize it. A lot of times in life, when you’re faced with sadness and depression and anger you can’t really formulate words for that. When someone is looking at you and telling you everything you’re doing is incorrect, sometimes the best you can do is say, “I don’t think so.” You internalize that.

Desiree Akhavan: That was the character. Someone who wasn’t that talkative. An introverted, athletic lesbian, an ode to every woman I’ve ever loved. I was building a type. I’ve been asked if that was something that changed specifically through casting Chloe, because she has a strength for communicating without words, but it was just a happy marriage, when the character meets the right actor.

Copyright FilmRise 2018

Mathew Shurka: It was incredibly powerful to see that in Chloe. It is so hard to turn conversion therapy into a film. All the subtleties are really clear in the film. My favorite part is when she just walks into the conversion therapy center and Reverend Rick is playing the guitar. There’s a shot of Chloe’s face. There’s doubt, there’s fear, and “where am I” and it’s every teenager. As a survivor, it read really clear to me, what was going on with her character.

We’d like to believe we are wiser now than in 1993, when this movie takes place, but how many states still allow conversion therapy?

Mathew Shurka: Only 14 states have banned conversion therapy for minors, which means that some form of it is still permitted in 36. But it’s legal for adults in all 50 states. A majority of conversion therapy programs are religion-based, but not all. This movie shows both, an actual therapist and a pastor. In reality, that’s how it goes. All of my treatment was conducted by licensed professionals. My father, who was the one who was really adamant about me going into conversion therapy did his due diligence and he wanted someone who had gone through the training of a therapist to conduct this.

They’re fighting these bills so a lot more are getting licensed as therapists to have more credibility, because they are fighting these bills. There are licensed and there are unlicensed and then the overlap who are both, pastors and licensed therapists. We say you have to choose. In the states where we passed those bills, people say, “What if there’s a pastor who wants to conduct conversion therapy?” and we say, “You have to honor and obey the terms of your therapist license.” You have to choose. You want to be a pastor and have those rights, fine, but if you’re acting as a therapist you have to honor that license.

Because these issues are still so present, did you ever think of setting the film in the present instead of in 1993?

Desiree Akhavan: We thought about it because it would have been cheaper. But no, it was always really important that they were as isolated as possible. For the dramatic stakes to be as high as possible, Cameron could not even know about other gay kids, let along see them on Instagram or reach out and ask for help. I didn’t want there to be a world outside of what they knew around them. I wanted to be loyal to the book but I also didn’t want to deal with technology and the whole host of changes that would bring to their lifestyle and personalities and their identity and their self-expression. The way kids live right now is very different from the way they lived in 1993 and it was important to keep it that way. But it is a very relevant film and when I began this process I didn’t realize how relevant it would become through the course of production.

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Hearts Beat Loud

Posted on June 7, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some drug references and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, references to drug use, scenes in a bar
Violence/ Scariness: Family and economic struggles, absent parent
Diversity Issues: Divers characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 8, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 10, 2018
Copyright 2018 Gunpowder & Sky

Isn’t it nice that we get to go live in Brett Haley World every now and then? The gifted young writer-director of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Hero” always gives us characters who might be flawed, who might not be where they expected or wanted or deserved to be, but who are marvelously human and endearing. His latest is “Hearts Beat Loud,” the story of a single dad with a failing business (vinyl records) and a bright, beautiful daughter about to leave for college. It is nothing less than high praise to say these are nice people. We love spending time with them. One reason is that Haley writes roles that great actors want to play, and he creates a space for them to do their best.

An early scene is not the usual father-daughter dispute. The daughter is Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a high school senior planning to be a doctor, and she wants to study to get ready for pre-med courses about the human heart. Her father, Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), wants to entice her away from her studies for “a jam sesh.” She is not interested. He wants them to be a band and asks her to name it. “We are not a band,” she says. “We Are Not a Band” it becomes, a Schrodinger’s Cat of a name that is both true and not true. Frank impulsively uploads Sam’s song to Spotify. Some attention to the song makes Frank think that they — maybe she — could have the chance he always dreamed of.

Is Sam a kid who had to be the grown-up in the relationship because her father never got over his dream of music? Well, maybe a little bit, but In Haley’s films, nothing is ever simple or formulaic. Sam respects and loves her dad, and even shares his love for music. She understands why he wants her to play with him. They won’t have many opportunities to do things together when she leaves. It is the prospect of her leaving that makes strengthening that bond even more important, though they both understand that having lived away from home will change everything between them, even when she comes back. There is another reason Frank wants to spend more time with Sam in the place that means the most to him, though he may not recognize it consciously at first. He gets to a point, though, where he asks: “Is there a girl? Or a boy?”

It is a girl. Sam is in love with Rose (Sasha Lane), an endearingly sweet first love. The mutual support and respect between the two girls is beautifully portrayed.

Sam has a mother who needs more support (“I’ll See You in My Dreams” star Blythe Danner) and he has a landlady (Toni Collette) who is almost a member of the family. When he tells her he can no longer pay even the discounted rent she generously allows him, she does everything she can to find a way to keep him there because she cares about him and she knows he cares about the store. She knows he cares about her, too, but she is in a relationship. And Sam has a buddy, a pot-smoking bartender played by Ted Danson (nice to see him behind a bar again).

Every performance in the film is a quiet gem. Offerman, so good at comic bombast in “Parks and Rec”is even better in a role that is not heightened but natural and understated. Frank is holding in a lot of his feelings, partly because he does not want Sam to see him worry about the store, his mother, or getting on after she leaves. But Offerman lets us see all of that and more, and he never for a moment lets us think that Frank is or thinks of himself as a loser. Clemons is a real find, radiant and completely believable as the braniac future doctor, the smokin’ singer, and the girl on the brink of first-time teenage love. Danson and Collette settle into their roles with infinite grace. The music in the film is fine. The music of the film sings straight to the heart.

Parents should know that this movie has references to pot smoking, some drinking, non-explicit teen sex, references to loss, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What would you name your band? Did Frank make the right decision? What will happen next?

If you like this, try: “Danny Collins” and “Janie Jones”

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They

Posted on April 23, 2018 at 6:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Issues of non-gender-conforming adolescence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (gender and ethnicity)
Date Released to Theaters: April 23, 2018
Copyright 2018 Mass Ornament Films

Trans kids generally know who they are, even when they are very young. They don’t tell their families they want to be a gender different from their body parts. They say they are that gender, and it is usually their families who have to reframe their understanding of the boy or girl they thought they had. Even the most certain of children and the most understanding and supportive of families face a wrenching challenge as the child approaches adolescence. Do you block puberty with medication to preserve the child’s choices about gender until age 18? Secondary sex characteristics for the wrong gender can be intensely traumatic. But the medication can have side effects.

“They” and “their” are the preferred pronouns for the lead character, known just as J, and played by a trans actor named Rhys Fehrenbacher. J is a young teenager who is having an adverse reaction to the puberty blockers and has to decide what to do. J’s parents are away caring for another family member, their return home delayed, and J’s brisk but not uncaring sister Lauren (Nicole Coffineau) and her Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini) have come to stay with J until their parents return.

Writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh gives the film a lyrical, meditative quality. J’s parents, sister, Araz, and doctor are all understanding and supportive, if distracted. They are all so accepting that no one seems to think J might need to talk about the momentous decisions they are confronting.

We see J reciting Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, The Mountain:

I do not mean to complain.
They say it is my fault.
Nobody tells me anything.
Tell me how old I am.

The deepest demarcations
can slowly spread and fade
like any blue tattoo.
I do not know my age.

We see many moments in nature, as though to locate J’s transitions within the context of the natural world. Lauren and Araz are both preoccupied with their own personal and professional liminal challenges as well. There is also a long, seemingly improvised section that takes place in the home of one of Araz’s relatives, with Lauren and J at a large family party. Throughout, it almost seems as though we are eavesdropping on bits and pieces of the J’s world.

That is not always successful, and some of the choices are heavy-handed. But thankfully, it is not didactic or preachy. J may not know what they want, but Ghazvinizadeh has confidence that they will make the right choice, and trusts us to root for them.

Parents should know that this movie deals obliquely but frankly with issues of non-binary gender.

Family discussion: How do the boys with the bicycle feel about J? What should J do?

If you like this, try: the “I am Jazz” series on television

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