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Film review: Boy Erased, and Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

15 February 2019

Stephen Brown sees two new films about young people and sex


Lucas Hedges and Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased

Lucas Hedges and Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased

ANOTHER gay-themed movie has come along in the shape of Boy Erased (Cert. 15). It’s not long after The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Arts, 7 September 2018), which likewise tackled conversion therapy. This time the lone figure is male.

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) plays Jared, who tries, for a very long time, to conform to his parents’ outlook. Strict Baptist in small-town Arkansas, he attends a multitude of church services and Bible classes. All the while, the hidden agenda is wrestling with his homosexuality. Praying doesn’t work. When he comes out in the open with his family, Marshall (Russell Crowe), his father, a church minister, orders him not to act on these feelings. Threats abound.

The teenager’s psychological hell depicted on screen is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name as the film. Like Cameron Post, he undergoes institutional conversion therapies to no avail. He is told: “You cannot be born a homosexual. It’s a lie. There’s a choice”. All the while, his sense of isolation, anger, and despair are increasing. For quite a chunk of the film, Christianity isn’t shown in a good light. Statements such as “God will not love you the way you are” don’t help.

What is good to see is how torn his devout parents are. His mother (Nicole Kidman) agonises over reconciling the teachings of her Christian community with maternal instincts and the love that she has for a bewildered child. Russell Crowe’s Marshall displays great sensitivity in holding on to fiercely held convictions but recognising the need for Christian compassion. He seeks guuidance from fellow Baptists. As the film puts it, this is more complicated for him than for his wife.

Joel Edgerton (who also plays a camp counsellor) directs the film, resisting the temptation to go over the top and turn those who condemn homosexual practices into villains. As a dramatic technique, it works well and runs more chance of reaching out to audiences who view gayness not just as an aberration but sinful, too. Instead of cardboard cutouts, the so-called therapists come across as real human beings wanting to help, using tough-love techniques in the process. Faith both informs their daily lives and practices, but is also an impediment to developing their Christianity. So much of it stems from notions of biblical exegesis which are woefully unaware of contemporary hermeneutic tools with which to analyse scripture.

The deeply conservative culture doesn’t give much assistance either. At base, Jared belongs to a community that finds change difficult. An atmosphere of fear pervades its being. Conformity is everything. The film throws up time and again the question how we can break out of this prison-like environment. Leaving is one way, but what are the options for the Jareds of this world if they stick around?

The title is interesting, because there is an implicit contract between father and son not to talk about Jared’s relationships. As a result, Marshall no longer knows his son. Jared is in effect a boy erased rather than a man resurrected.

curzon artificial eyeOphélie Bau and Shaïn Boumédine in Mektoub, My Love

SÈTE in southern France, an old fishing port, includes a significant proportion of Tunisian immigrants. Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno (Cert.15) focuses on some of these youngsters. Amin (Shaïn Boumédine) is returning home. From the soundtrack come strains of Mozart’s “Exultate, Jubilate”. It is often used liturgically as a celebration of the Risen Life, but has also spilled over into concert halls. That is the genius of the work as well as its beauty. The rejoicing theme invites a heavenly response to earth’s song.

One can see how the sacred and the secular find a unity here. Superimposed on screen are sentences from sacred texts. The first is a misquotation of John 9.5: “God is the light of the world.” The other is from the Qur’an 24.35: “Light upon light, God guides to his light whom he wills.” There is a particularity about this second statement. God may make choices of whom to guide. (Mektoub is Arabic for fate or destiny).

These words, however, lie within the context of a metaphor regarding an oil lamp yet to be lit. In other words, there is something about the potential for each and every one of us to spark into flaming light. It is arguable that Abdellatif Kechiche (director of Blue is the Warmest Colour) is suggesting that, wherever there are hints of “light” (mysterious though they may be), there is something of the divine also being experienced. We need to hold on to that thought for the next three hours of film, even if we are dazzled.

What we see next is a prolonged sex scene between Amin’s old friend Ophélie (Ophélie Bau) and his cousin Tony (Salim Kechiouche). There is certainly much exultation and jubilation to the fore during this sequence. Are we expected to place a spiritual interpretation on the love-making of the kind that D. H. Lawrence advocated: the sacred to be felt in those blissful moments of sexual union? Possibly; but Ophélie is already engaged to the never-to-be-seen Clément, thus placing a question mark over how holy the alliance with Tony has been.

At first sight, this is a prurient film, lasciviously exposing barely clad or naked young flesh in a manner reminiscent of Russ Meyer’s sun-and-sand sexploitation movies. That view would, I feel, undersell this production. At its best, Mektoub, My Love manages to be a thought-provoking meditation, with the emphasis on the word “thought”. Not much happens to move the plot along other than a consideration of emerging girl-power. The film neither judges its subjects nor necessarily praises them.

That it is set in 1994 tells us something, too. Retrospectively, it reflects on what an older generation perceives as hedonism when in reality the characters are still in the dark as they flail about, falling in and out of relationships. We are left asking whether by now, 25 years on, any of these young people will have seen the light. God knows; or perhaps the next film in this trilogy will be a revelation.

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