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The isolating process of becoming aware of one’s sexuality, being forced by societal constraints to deny it and then finally dealing with the often difficult after-effects that follow coming out, or being forced out, can be deeply traumatic and difficult to explain to those who haven’t endured it themselves. In Boy Erased, this experience is brought to the screen within a particularly harrowing framework, based on the memoir from Garrard Conley.
In the film, he’s called Jared, played by Lucas Hedges, and we meet him as he’s preparing to head to a 12-day course of conversion therapy. It’s an unvoidable trial for him to face with his ashamed Baptist pastor father (Russell Crowe) insisting that change has to happen in order for him to stay in the family. He travels with his mother (Nicole Kidman), who stays with him at a local hotel as he undergoes daily sessions that aim to retrain him by increasing his masculinity and reminding him that these homosexual urges are learned rather than part of his genetic makeup. As Jared progresses, we go back to see the moments that have led him there.
As the second film this year to tackle a difficult yet depressingly prescient topic (after Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post), Boy Erased arrives as the starrier, more awards-aiming option and it’s an intriguing direction for Joel Edgerton, whose debut The Gift proved to be a thrilling surprise. He also stars as the head of the program and he’s assembled a fine cast to surround him, also including Troye Sivan, Flea, Xavier Dolan and a quick yet memorable cameo from Cherry Jones. But despite such talent and a subject matter that’s undeniably fascinating, he can’t seem to craft a deserving movie. It’s a curiously underwhelming, muted, often plodding two hours that fails to reach the emotional highs and devastating lows one would expect from the material.
Edgerton drowns his film in drabness, which makes aesthetic sense given the world he’s trying to capture and it does successfully evoke a certain time and place, helping us to understand the restrictive nature of Jared’s surroundings. But this also extends to his perfunctory score and mostly flat dialogue which added to a relatively conventional plot, prevents the film from ever coming alive. Hedges is a great pick for the role, his innate vulnerability helping to draw us in, but he can only do so much with what Edgerton’s script has given him and on screen, Jared is a frustratingly underdeveloped shadow of a character. The film never successfully conveys the torment and loneliness he feels and as a depiction of a gay teen, it’s too far removed and lacking in specificity to make an impact. It’s a cold study rather than a humane movie, the eventual emotional confrontations carrying little weight.
There are individual elements that work. While processing his “moral inventory” for the group, Jared relives his first sexual experience and as a vignette, it’s horribly well-observed, making for difficult, troubling viewing. There are also scenes in therapy that bring up interesting questions about perceptions of masculinity and as the increasingly sinister group leader, Edgerton plays his role well, building up from a believably charming base. While Crowe is barely in the film, Kidman does well as a mother struggling with her own belief system and there is subtlety in how the film refuses to turn characters into easy villains, viewing them with empathy.
There’s been a wealth of coming-out stories on film in the last couple of years, from Beach Rats to Love Simon to Moonlight, and Boy Erased feels neutered in comparison. It ultimately doesn’t feel like a film made with a gay audience in mind, working better as education for a wider straight crowd about a practice that still exists in 36 US states. As a PSA it is surely needed and it’s undoubtedly well-intentioned but as a film with its heart in the right place, I just wish its heart was beating a bit louder.
Source: The Guardian
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