The good intentions of Boy Erased can't make up for its lesser parts
If there’s any one activity that best sums up the depths of homophobia’s depravity, it’s conversion therapy. The long standing (and still prevalent) practice in which gay individuals are forced to attend “camps” where they are subjected to mental and even physical abuse, all in the name of praying away their “sinful” sexual identity, should be one of our nation’s deepest sources of shame. It’s a practice that leaves lasting wounds for the LGBTQ people it “treats”; individuals who are subjected to the therapy are more than eight times more likely to commit suicide and nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression. Despite its widespread effects, the practice has only recently entered mainstream conversation surrounding LGBTQ rights. One way those opposing the practice are trying to raise awareness about its dangers is through cinema, and the latest effort in that department is Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s (The Gift) adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name. It’s a film layered with good intentions, but let down by a hesitance to truly dive into the souls of its characters or hold supporters of conversion therapy accountable for their actions.
Following 19-year-old Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, Mid90s) as he enters a conversion program called Love in Action at the behest of his preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) and obedient mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman, The Hours), the film flashes back and forth between his time in the program and formative moments in his realization that he is a gay man. At the camp Jared is at the mercy of the manipulative counselor Victor Sykes (Edgerton) and his right hand man Brandon (Flea, Baby Driver and of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame), who use religion and homogenized ideals of masculinity and femininity to shame Jared and his fellow attendees over their sexual histories. Also among those undergoing the “treatment” is Jon (Canadian director wunderkind Xavier Dolan, Bad Times at the El Royale), a battered man eager to please those running the show, and Gary (burgeoning pop star Troye Sivan), who urges Jared to “play the part” and pretend the treatment is working in order to get out as quickly as possible.
At face value, this is an attempt to portray the ethical fallacies and horrors behind conversion therapy that successfully hammers home its message largely due to the work of its actors. It features a moving, emotionally complex performance from Hedges, who continues his rise as the industry’s it boy for melancholy with the layers of tortured guilt and lost faith he brings to the role. There’s a genuine, heartbreaking sense of pain and shame in his performance that drives home the great failure of many of our nation’s parents in accepting our children for who they are. Edgerton is downright dastardly as Sykes, showing the depths one is willing to go to sell hatred. Behind the camera, he gives Kidman and Crowe their to-be-expected showy, Oscar-reel ready monologues, but they still find the humanity behind the reprehensible actions of these conflicted parents. Crowe is especially good, tapping into his penchant for method acting to turn in a convincing, realistic portrayal of an All-American preacher, complete with a Southern gut and oodles of exasperated confusion over his son’s “choice” to be gay. A scene between Hedges and Crowe near the end of the film is particularly excellent, flipping the usual dynamic of parents imparting some profound life lesson on their child into a moment where a father learns something for once.
For all the solid performances, there is a notable lack of finesse behind the camera from Edgerton, which is surprising given the tight, assured work he produced with his directorial debut The Gift. This film may expose him as a director better suited for less softhearted work, as his flashier tendencies as director provide some pretty questionable moments here. One comes in the film’s climax, where Edgerton inserts a garish dose of slow motion in an amateurish attempt to heighten the impact of the emotions on-screen. It’s in scenes like this where we see a director early in his career who still has some things to learn when it comes to showing restraint in their technique at key moments. Still, being an actor by trade, he does admittedly have a knack for staging tense moments between performers, letting the camera linger in ways that highlight the discomfort behind the difficult conversations in which he he situates his characters.
Edgerton’s direction isn’t the film’s only problem, as his script is rife with flaws as well. The flashback-heavy plot structure interrupts many of the film’s most impactful moments and gives these characters little room to grow, especially Jared, who feels more or less defined by prior experiences, in particular a grisly sexual assault and dreamlike evening of romance with an artist. There’s otherwise very little digging into him as a character, with the script instead opting for visceral pain with almost zero context. Such a lack of closeness with his character makes the drama feel half-baked. Another fault lies in the heavy focus on Jared’s parents, a seemingly obvious choice when you have two of the world’s finest actors in the roles, but the choice hampers the film’s interrogation of their decisions. Edgerton moves through their arcs too quickly, piling sympathy on them at a rapid pace as they come to realize the horror of Jared’s treatment, but the sentimentality mostly gives them a pass in a story where they arguably don’t deserve it. Because Edgerton is so concerned with you empathizing with Jared’s parents in addition to the titular boy himself, it can feel like the camp scenes are holding back slightly in their portrayal of the nightmares that make up conversion therapy. If the scenes are too real, too raw, then it’s harder for Edgerton to sell you on accepting Marshall and Nancy as flawed but redeemable characters. Such a decision to play it safe undercuts the film’s own message. Other films covering this same subject but with queer individuals sitting in the director’s chair, such as Desiree Akhavan’s work earlier this year in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, are not plagued by this conflicted nature because their messages come from the souls of actual LGBTQ people rather than an outside perspective.
Boy Erased’s biggest flaw is that it’s simply a fine movie when it could have been a great one. It gets points for its well-meaning, educative stance on dismantling a practice that is torturing thousands upon thousands of LGBTQ people in our country and beyond, but a lack of queer voices behind the camera makes this film’s message muddied and told from a less-effective, too broadly empathetic point-of-view. While such an eye may turn those who most need to learn about the struggles of LGBTQ people on to this film’s lessons, one can only hope it will lead these people to films with similar topics that come from voices within the diverse community depicted here.