Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

25 November 2018

Boy Erased

Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased is pretty good. It has its problems. But if you're me, and you grew up in a Baptist house afraid you might be gay, it's pretty intense. I cried so many times that I lost count.

The plot works like this. Young Jared (Lucas Hedges) says goodbye to his mom and dad (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) and enrolls in a program that promises to help him get rid of his homosexuality and return to the love of the Christian god. Most of the movie involves time spent in sessions of this conversion therapy – which are all legitimately insane but wouldn't quite sound insane to the ear of a good Christian boy like I was growing up.

Christianity and other spiritual practices already involve accepting things that don't seem rational and making sense of things that apparently contradict one another. And these are desperate young people who really don't want to be gay, so they are willing to try anything that promises the possibility of normal heterosexuality. So the idea that, say, making a list of the different "sins" practiced by members of one's family or learning how to hit a baseball might help a person get rid of same-sex attraction (that's what they call it) can seem like a great idea. At the very least, one can see why someone would be willing to commit to a program like this. The Baptist church has made homosexuality into the unpardonable sin par excellence, so nothing can be off the table when it comes to trying to change a gay kid into a straight kid.

I'm about to say something that I think might be controversial.

I honestly can't say that the gay conversion therapy in Boy Erased seemed that crazy to me in Baptist terms. None of the activities practiced in the therapy sessions seemed any more or less coercive, violent, bullying, shame-inducing, or insane than anything I experienced in church growing up. I'm really grateful my parents never sent me to any gay conversion camp (Thanks, mom and dad!); that would have totally sucked. But – although the film doesn't have anything to say about this – church life is actually like a constant gay conversion therapy in miniature. An effeminate boy feels constant pressure to behave in more masculine ways, to walk differently, talk differently, bend his body differently, firm up his handshake, tell certain kinds of jokes, play every sport possible, and pursue young women romantically. All while, of course, learning the scriptures and going to church all the time. In fact, if a boy does get a little too interested in masculine pursuits like girls or sports and thus slacks off in his more important spiritual duties, this is mostly ok with everyone. There is nothing, see, worse than homosexuality, except, perhaps, like, straight-up Satanism. So, yes, Boy Erased is a document of a terrible ordeal that several kids are made to endure because of their alleged sexual desires, but I would say that every kid growing up in the Baptist church feels these pressures, and queer kids in the Baptist church are made to feel them acutely.

The other structural element to the film is a set of flashbacks to earlier sections in Jared's life – all while he is an older teenager. These include sequences with a high school girlfriend, a Christian crush at college, and a Canadian painter. These are all intriguing, but I am not going to say anything about them because of spoilers. One of the sections is, in fact, very surprising.

But the film is not, as it turns out, very surprising. It mostly feels conventional. It's a very typical story – something like Thelma from a couple years ago – of a gay kid learning to be ok with being gay (although how he learned that is unclear, even apostrophized by the filmmakers) and then trying to deal with his mostly homophobic parents.

Edgerton's direction is not great either (although his performance in the film is quite good). The whole thing is very somber in tone, and the film is almost completely unbroken by humor of any kind – even though Kidman does her best to lighten the mood occasionally. A more confident filmmaker would have included more moments of humor, and so the fault is mostly with Edgerton's inexperience, I think. But also (and I also complained about this in my We the Animals review), the filmmaking has almost nothing gay about it, either. This is a film about a gay kid that is almost completely unrelated to gay culture. Even Jared's desire for his college friend Henry is rendered only through Lucas Hedges' facial expressions. The camera does nothing to tell us how much Jared desires Henry or what he wants from Henry. (There is, for example, this great sequence when the two go for a run together and Henry lifts his arms to stretch, and Jared sneaks a glance at his exposed belly. The camera shows us nothing – only Jared in medium shot looking furtively at his friend. Edgerton's camera, in other words, doesn't identify with Jared's desires; it stays outside of them, observing them without seeming really to understand.) The only campy moment in Boy Erased is in a single title-card at the end of the film – it is a good joke, but I could've used a bit more of this in Edgerton's relentless movie.

Edgerton also uses slow-motion way more than he needs it, contributing to the overall ponderousness of Boy Erased but not really contributing at all to our understanding of Jared and his journey toward reckoning with his same-sex attractions. But this is actually the point. The purpose of Edgerton's movie is a kind of public service announcement about how terrible gay conversion therapy is. Further, Boy Erased is a film designed to tell people about how awful gay conversion therapy is while not saying terrible things about Christianity or the Baptist church and not being a gay film. This is a mainstream film for mainstream audiences designed to change people's minds about gay conversion therapy and get some laws passed banning the practice. These are, perhaps, noble aims, and I haven't anything negative to say about them, but they make for a stilted film that doesn't hang together as nicely as it might.

The acting is great, though. I liked Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I loved him in Lady Bird, but he carries Boy Erased and does it wonderfully. He gives a beautiful, vulnerable performance, and I believed every second of it. I also really loved Russell Crowe, who is, I know, great in everything. Nicole Kidman (who I also love) is the only one who feels out of place here. She is acting a little too much, as though she is just too different from her character to play her quite without comment. Cherry Jones makes a fabulous cameo and has a great scene. Edgerton himself is also pretty great. Xavier Dolan has actually rather a large part, but I found him distracting. I see him way too much as a sort of outspoken enfant terrible of gay Canadian cinema for me to believe him as a kid who really wants to go back to being a good hetero Christian.

As for Oscar nominations... I don't know. I am skeptical. I don't think this movie is very good, even though my own adolescence made the whole thing deeply moving. I can see Hedges getting some Oscar buzz as the main character, but I have trouble seeing him with a Best Actor nomination. I am fairly certain that Troye Sivan (who also plays one of the kids doing the conversion therapy) wrote an original song for the movie (it is, of course, also quite ponderous). These two seem like the only real shots Boy Erased has for nominations. Nothing else really stands out.

(Sidebar: if you know me and you have seen the movie, you know that there is also something that I should be talking about here that I am not talking about. This is the surprising section to which I alluded above. I don't want to spoil that plot point, so I'll talk about it at another time.)

The Memphis Belle: a Story of a Flying Fortress

The Memphis Belle is fairly conventional pro-war, anti-German propaganda, but the footage is awesome and the whole thing feels very personal and exciting. I especially like the animated sequences that are incorporated into this and other documentaries from this period during the War.

I watched it, remastered, at a Veterans Day situation at school with mostly military folks in attendance. That was a decidedly weird situation, let me tell you. All of that nationalism really makes me uncomfortable. But I was grateful for the opportunity to see the film.

Summer 1993

This Catalan film was very good for most of its running time – a quiet little character study in grief. And then the last ten minutes are extraordinary. Summer 1993 really hit home for me at the end. It's an amazing ending that knocks this film out of the park for me.

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers is Jacques Audiard's first English language film, and it has lots of great stuff in it. It's a sensitive, thinking man's western – but maybe more of a feeling man's western than anything else. In any case, it moves away from much of the genre's standard tropes.

And yet... it doesn't quite succeed. Jake Gyllenhaal is miscast, or at the very least plays his role in a stilted kind of way (and I love Jake Gyllenhaal). The Sisters Brothers is also occasionally too slow, and it doesn't fully develop its focus on its most enigmatic character (a typically genius Riz Ahmed), even if it does end up taking us to some great places.

I suppose its worst sin is that it can't live up to Audiard's previous stuff. I know that it's not fair to say that The Sisters Brothers is no Un Prophète, but... well, it's no Un Prophète. In fact, I'd say that Audiard is at his best in Sisters Brothers when he's leaning fully in to the criminal activities of his protagonists or fully in to the emotional nuances of his characters.

Still, act three is marvelous; I found myself quite moved throughout The Sisters Brothers' third act. And the final sequence is absolute perfection.

L'Amant Double

Double Lover is sexy and troubling and strange. It surprised me numerous times. It is François Ozon's particular brand of twisted erotic thriller. This definitely will not everyone's cup of tea, but I loved it. And I think I am realizing that Ozon is one of my favorite directors. His brain just works in a way that makes a great deal of sense to me. I love this man's movies. His Frantz was one of my favorite movies from last year, and now L'Amant Double, which is so different from Frantz, is one of my favorites this year.

22 November 2018

We the Animals

I am disappointed to report that Jeremiah Zagar's film adaptation of We the Animals is not good.

There are going to be some spoilers below, so if you haven't read the novel and don't want it spoiled, you better stop now and go get the book. It's great!

It was always going to be a little strange to adapt Justin Torres' coming-of-age novel to the screen. The form of Torres' book is a set of somewhat disconnected short stories – each section describing different moments in the childhood and adolescence of three brothers and their fluctuating relationships with their mother and father.

But Zagar opts for an approach that actually avoids the coming of age that is central to the Bildungsroman in the first place. Instead of Jonah, the narrator, starting off at age 6, as he does in the novel, he starts off at age 9. He turns 10 in the movie, but the little guy doesn't get any older than that. Jonah is played, for the entirety of the film by nine-year-old Evan Rosado in his first film role.

The trouble with this is that the story of We the Animals hinges on a sexual coming of age. In the novel, Jonah and his brothers are inseparable, basically one person. They do everything together. But Jonah grows apart in some ways – against his own will. And he becomes sexually attracted to men. When his family finds out, they kick him out of the house. This section of the book is painful, but it follows immediately after Jonah's first sexual experience, and so the family's rejection in Torres' novel feels... well, less important. Jonah has already found something else, something maybe even more important and better. The scene in the novel in which he first has sex with a man is extraordinary. It's beautifully written and is easily my favorite section in the book. He has sex with a stranger, but he feels baptized, turned inside out and made into a man. It's a gorgeous sequence.

Raúl Castillo and Evan Rosado
This is simply not possible with a nine-year-old actor. For the film to work the way the book works, we would need at least two actors for each of the boys. We would have to watch them grow up in the movie. Zagar opts out of this for reasons I don't really understand, and the result of this is that the movie's plot becomes totally nonsensical. Little Jonah is just a ten-year-old. He doesn't have sex with a stranger. He doesn't come of age. He doesn't become anything. He's ten. He doesn't do anything, really, to which anyone might object except to draw some pictures. His brothers are too young really to reject him, and there's no reason his parents wouldn't dismiss his behaviors as the behaviors of a child. Still, in Zagar's movie they do reject him, even though the film can't really explain why they would, and then Jonah, I guess, runs away from home again. It doesn't make sense and it doesn't work.

I recognize that I am being hard on this film, and I know that films aren't the same things as books, but I actually am just not sure why Zagar decided to make this story at all. It feels to me like he simply didn't understand the book... or at least didn't understand the book's treatment of sexuality. Having this adorable nine-year-old at the center just makes the whole thing so strange – and so nonsexual. And in a fashion that seems typical of mainstream LGBT politics, what is sex in Torres' novel becomes love in Zagar's film. We the Animals understands gay sexuality as a kind of essence, something that gay people are. For me this is a basically anti-queer aesthetic, a straight-people way of interpreting queer sexuality. And it's a way of not confronting something central to most people's fears about queer sexuality; see, once a film like this has decided that gay people are a "kind of people", then it no longer has to think about the sex that gay people have. So instead of the sexual baptism by a strange bus driver at a truck stop that Torres wrote, we get, in Zagar's film, a little boy who stares longingly at an older boy and works up the courage to give him a kiss. It's sweet, to be sure, but it's a poor adaptation of a beautifully rejuvenative original.

19 November 2018

Two Foreign Language Entries

Two of this year's foreign language submissions. I saw both of them at the Tallahassee Film Society, and I'm very grateful that the TFS exists. I loved both of these films!

The Cakemaker (Der Kuchenmacher) (האופה-מברלין) is Israel's submission. It's a beautiful film, filled with gorgeous images of food and a love of sensuality. I'll say just a little about its plot. A young Berliner begins an affair with a man from Israel who is in town a lot for work. When his (married) lover dies, he decides to go to Jerusalem to look for answers... or maybe just to be closer to his lover or to be with his memories. The Cakemaker is a tender, sad meditation on loss and love; I was really moved by it. Israeli-German filmmaker Ofir Raul Graizer's movie is in Hebrew, German, and English. It's his first feature. The score is beautiful; the script is surprising. The two central performances are astounding, and the supporting work is also great. I loved this movie.

The UK's submission is called I Am Not a Witch. This is the first feature film by the Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni. I Am Not a Witch is the story of a young girl who is accused of being a witch by some villagers in Zambia. She is then taken to a witch camp, filled with old women, who work in the fields and otherwise labor for the Zambian government. They are also a tourist attraction: folks come to gawk at them and take pictures. I Am Not a Witch is a colorful, beautiful film. Young Shula (our 8-year-old witch) falls in with a government official, who exploits her and manipulates her "predictions" and "intuitions" with a superstitious population, many of whom actually seem to believe in the witch's powers. Nyoni's film is shocking but beautifully made, and it doesn't become overly sentimental or treat its character as though they're fools. This is an excellent film.

16 November 2018

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)

I am not totally sure why I was as bored by The Snows of Kilimanjaro as I was, but it struck me as an extraordinarily static film with only melodramatic content. Its much vaunted cinematography and its beautiful images of Africa and its fauna were only there for decoration, and what they were decorating wasn't interesting at all. It's a shame, too, because I basically Ava Gardner is perfect in everything. Truth be told, she is also great in this, but the film is worthless.

14 November 2018


Hereditary was scary and also batshit crazy. It's a bit too much like Rosemary's Baby for my taste, but the first hour is aces and it has some great performances.


Even though this is of gay interest, and I was looking forward to it, I found Disobedience kinda boring.

It's the filmmaking, really. Sebastián Lelio, who made the fabulous Gloria, made last year's A Fantastic Woman, which was also boring. Now he has made Disobedience, and he somehow has coaxed wooden performances out of his actors, Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola. I am not sure what has happened to Lelio, but everything here seems unimaginative and flat.

One example: near the end of the movie, we are without underscoring as we attend the Hesped and watch the women get seated. This all takes about a minute. Then the music begins and we watch Nivola make a decision while the music from the funeral happens. It would've been quite moving to hear the funeral music under all of this – the usual way of editing sound since Soderbergh's Sex, Lies & Videotape - but Lelio instead opts for a kind of Naturalism to the film's detriment.

Gabriel and the Mountain

I found Gabriel e a Montanha to be a fascinating character study. It's also gorgeously shot, and it also concerns itself with the people in Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, and Tanzania who encountered Gabriel at the end of his life. I really enjoyed this.