Boy Erased Review
Boy Erased (2018) | Dir. Joel Edgerton | Cast: Lucas Hedges, Madelyn Cline, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe | Writers: Garrard Conley (based on the memoir Boy Erased by), Joel Edgerton (written for the screen by)
When it comes to portraying a troubled adolescence Lucas Hedges has cornered the market in the past few years. From losing his father in Manchester by the Sea, to playing a boy confused about his sexuality in Lady Bird and becoming a recovering addict in Ben Is Back, he’s given a number of solid performances that have already established him in prestige picture territory. Boy Erased is another that can be added to that list, which despite its Oscar-bait trappings, has managed to be completely overlooked during award season.
Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, it follows in the footsteps of Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which addressed the same issues with far more clarity. Gay conversion therapy seems like a practice that would’ve died out in the 50s, yet as Joel Edgerton’s film shows, it is sadly still alive and kicking in the modern age. Yet, while it's a subject that should be rich in emotional stakes, Boy Erased is a flat and largely uninvolving affair.
18-year-old Jared (Lucas Hedges) seems to be the 'perfect' heterosexual son: he studies well, he plays on the basketball team and his girlfriend is a high school cheerleader. But after arriving at college he is outed by his roommate (following a violent sexual assault) and forced to undergo conversion therapy for 12 days by his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe), who is supported by his faithful wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman).
Once at the Love in Action therapy centre, he becomes part of a group that includes other attendees like Jon (Xavier Dolan) and Cameron (Britton Sear) who are all being asked to 'cast out their sins' by leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) in order to suppress their sexuality. We cut back and forth across time lines to show how Jared’s parents struggle to deal with the situation, straining his relationship with a father who lives life strictly by the code of the bible. Jared has to overcome the centre’s attempts to confuse his own true feelings, leaving him to decide the path his life should follow.
A lot depends on Hedges’ ability to carry the emotional weight of the film in a role that is largely passive. He has proven himself to be a good young actor in recent years, but there is only so much he can do with the one-dimensional material he is given. Boy Erased isn’t exactly filled with nuance, and the stitching together of Jared’s time at the centre with his inner turmoil and relationships at home never really feels whole. It all feels very surface level, with little willingness to give an edge to any of the dynamics that would make his situation feel as troubled as they obviously are.
There's a moment in the middle of the film where Jared spends the night with an artist called Xavier (Theodore Pellerin) after meeting at a local art exhibition. The placement of this segment feels crammed in-between the other events in Jared's life, and the tenderness it wants to convey never comes across. It's all too fleeting and adds little to what we already know about his journey of self-discovery. Much of which could be also said about a film that mostly feels like a series of moments, rather than a coherent trajectory.
Kidman is strong in the role of a protective mother who has her own quiet misgivings about the pressure being placed onto her son. Scenes between the two hold more weight, but Crowe isn't given sufficient screen time to develop anything meaningful with Hedges. While Edgerton's debut film, The Gift, was surprisingly good fun, this adaptation is too concerned with its own maturity instead of finding a way into Jared's inner life. As a director it looks like he has more to offer, but maybe this type of drama isn't the right niche for his talents.
Boy Erased opens nationwide in UK cinemas on February 8th.