It still seems insane, not only that gay conversion therapy still exists, but that it even exists at all. The whole concept so flies in the face of basic human rights and psychology: to take a person and brainwash them to be someone else in order to "fix them" of their sexuality, that it feels like it should belong to a dystopian novel. And yet, these kinds of organisations are a reality, a legally acceptable reality, one that advances in LGBTIQ+ rights haven’t been able to destroy. This year, we’ve seen two independent American films take on these stories – the first being Desiree Akhavan’s ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’, and now Joel Edgerton’s ‘Boy Erased’, his follow-up to his acclaimed directorial debut ‘The Gift’. In terms of timing, it comes exactly when it needs to. In terms of execution though, it doesn’t come together as it should.
Based on the acclaimed memoir by Garrard Conley, ‘Boy Erased’ is the story of Jared (Lucas Hedges, ‘Lady Bird’, 'Manchester By The Sea'), a teenager coming to terms with his sexuality. When his minister father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and devoted mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) find out Jared’s secret, they send him to a church-run conversion therapy program led by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton). As the program progresses, Jared is forced to look into himself and those he loves for answers to what is "wrong" with him, rewrite his past as a series of sins and mistakes, and learn to reject the very thing that may give him joy in his life.
‘Boy Erased’ has all the makings of a powerful, hard-hitting drama (especially coming on the heels of films like ‘A Fantastic Woman’ and ‘Moonlight’), but the results unfortunately leave a lot to be desired. The assured hand Edgerton demonstrated with his screenplay and direction of ‘The Gift’ isn’t as strong here, and it becomes clear very quickly that this project may have been more than the developing director could handle. There are some genuinely brilliant moments in it and flashes of what it could have been, but the rhythm and tone of the film never find their feet, and the editing is erratic and unclear, causing it to often meander. ‘Boy Erased’ feels like a film heading towards a shattering conclusion, but it never ends up anywhere, petering out into very little. The film is almost all tension without consequence or payoff, and while that holds it together to an extent, it ultimately feels unsatisfying. Much of the heart of the film works in its flashbacks, especially seeing Jared in college, a combination of moments beautiful and harrowing, so that by comparison, the sequences in therapy feel slight and minor. We’re being given a view into this horrific practise, but the view we’re given isn’t always as interesting as you’d hope.
It’s a pity, because its heart is definitely in the right place, and there are many moving and powerful moments (mostly thanks to the cast). The film is an interesting comparison to Felix Van Groeningen’s ‘Beautiful Boy’, another drama on an important subject effecting a young man that never amounts to much, but to its credit there’s something more generous and quietly furious about ‘Boy Erased’ that makes it a slightly more satisfying film. Where ‘Beautiful Boy’ felt like a blanket statement on drug addiction, ‘Boy Erased’ has a specificity and a clearer intention, so that when the inevitable statistics come up at the end of this film (so obnoxious in the other), they have a sense of purpose to them, so that, even though ‘Boy Erased’ falls short, at least it is trying to do something instead of just taking for granted that its decision to exist at all should be enough. It’s also often a well-made film, with handsome cinematography from Eduard Grau and particularly wonderful costume design from Trish Summerville, whose work evokes the crisp insincerity of religiously devout communities and the harsh stripping of individuality in the conversion centre without sacrificing character detail. Edgerton does continue to show some skill with his direction, but this feels like a film he should have attempted with a bit more experience under his belt. It’s almost as if the scale of it catches him unawares, and he does his best to bring it all together without getting there.
All that said, there is one triumph in ‘Boy Erased’, and that is Lucas Hedges’ performance. After being an outstanding (and Oscar-nominated) supporting part in many films (more often than not being the best thing about them), this is his first lead role and he doesn’t waste a second. His work is often breathtaking, contained to the point of heartbreak, a quiet and devastating performance filled with fear and pain and longing. There’s a terrible push-and-pull to Jared, to play a part expected of him as a man and as a minister’s son, and we watch with great sorrow as that social performance drowns his own individuality. Where lesser actors would have indulged, Hedges holds true to Jared’s armour, so that the rare moments where it slips, the effect is instant and affecting. Jared is a pressure cooker coming apart at the seams, and Hedges knows that watching Jared try to hold himself together is far more affecting that seeing him blow apart. If ‘Boy Erased’ does anything, it confirms that Lucas Hedges is one of the best actors of his generation, and his performance, respectful and detailed and deep, is the reason to see the film.
‘Boy Erased’ feels like a film heading towards a shattering conclusion, but it never ends up anywhere, petering out into very little.
The rest of the performances though are a mixed bag. Of course Kidman is brilliant – we’ve seen her play these kinds of mothers before, but she’s just so damn good at it, and her easy chemistry with Hedges make her moments with him among the best. Edgerton is also quite good as Sykes, refusing to play him as the easy antagonist and instead drive him with desperate conviction. Russell Crowe starts off shaky, but finds a good balance towards the end. There’s also good work from Joe Alwyn but Xavier Dolan and Troye Sivan are a tad too melodramatic, especially compared to the stunning subtlety and restraint of Lucas Hedges.
It feels like such a loss that ‘Boy Erased’ doesn’t work as well as it should, because so much of it gets achingly close. It feels like the film is constantly on the tipping point, about to break out and bring it home with a thunderous finale or emotionally shattering turning point, but never delivering it. That said, I still found something quite moving and sorrowful about ‘Boy Erased’. It’s a film trying to do something, and even though it doesn’t seem to quite know how, at least it has the best intentions, and best of all, it gives us the chance to see Lucas Hedges in a lead role, something long overdue and enormously satisfying. It’s just a pity that ‘Boy Erased’ isn’t the slap-down statement on gay conversion therapy we were hoping it would be.