**1/2 out of ****
(for sexual content including an assault, some strong language, and brief drug use)
Released: November 9, 2018
Runtime: 115 minutes
Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Flea, Troy Sivan, Jesse LaTourette, Xavier Dolan, Joe Alwyn
For a movie unlikely to change anyone’s personal or ideological beliefs, the one thing that Boy Erased should hopefully get everyone to agree on – from Christian conservatives to Secular liberals alike – is that Gay Conversion Therapy is not healthy, helpful, or legitimate.
Where the film is less convincing is as a movie itself.
Ironically, Boy Erased becomes a form of progressive agitprop that falls prey to the same kind of ham-fisted, black-and-white tactics that Christian films are often mocked for (including how it uses songs to market its points). It just has better actors.
You could say Boy Erased mixes tones of faith-based and awards bait.
Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, the names have been slightly tweaked but the story hues closely to Conley’s personal account. It’s told through a non-linear narrative, which proves effective, as does a credible sense of Evangelical culture. Had the structure been sequential, or the milieu false, the film’s shortcomings would’ve been even more glaring and tedious.
Conley’s doppelganger is Jared Eamons, played with fragile, heartbreaking power by Lucas Hedges (Oscar nominee for Manchester by the Sea). Jared is the son of a southern Baptist preacher. When a disturbing event leads to a forced coming out, Jared’s parents send him to “Love In Action”, a Christian camp for gay conversion therapy. It offers the promise of making the homo hetero, the gay straight.
Jared is desperate for the therapy to work. He goes in scared, but earnest and hopeful. What he finds is a rigid boot camp environment led by passive aggressive counselors. They use shaming tactics, but in the cloak of love and structure.
Objectively speaking, the camp’s approach isn’t about transforming hearts and souls; it’s about indoctrinating minds and regimenting habits. Even with this film’s biases, it’s hard to imagine these so-called therapies as anything other than misguided at best. At worst, they go to fundamentalist extremes that become cult-like.
As one-sided as the story is, Boy Erased is admirable to the extent that it’s not preachy or eye-rolling, but it’s not exactly complex or challenging either. It’s conventional and, in moments, heavy-handed.
The cast, in fact, adds much more nuance to the material than Joel Edgerton’s direction does, including Edgerton’s own performance (he plays Victor Sykes, the head of “Love In Action”). The ensemble is deeply, empathetically invested, humanizing traumatic events (including a sexual assault) and gut-churning familial tension with genuine sincerity.
This is especially true between Jared and his parents, played by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, who engage Jared as honestly as they know how, within their religious convictions. Edgerton’s filmmaking, however, isn’t as generous, especially as it charges into the melodrama of its second half.
Nevertheless, he gives Crowe and Kidman those moments, including a late powerful scene between father and son that shows love being pursued, even as a resolution can’t be reconciled. It’s the kind of moment that, for families who find themselves at a similar impasse, could provide hope.
It’s in these moments where Boy Erased is at its best, unencumbered by Edgerton’s directorial crutches. They breathe, carried solely by the performances themselves, free of stylized intrusions that aren’t necessary, and even counterproductive.
When Edgerton holds back from the calculated use of music or sensationalized excesses, that’s when Boy Erased is at its most poignant and affecting. It’s just not quite often enough. Boy Erased gets so intent on being provocative that it stops short of being thought-provoking.