Adapted from Gerrard Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased paints a picture of repressed queer white middle America, in all of the religious familial practice and assumption of normalcy to go with the setting. Lucas Hedges plays the author (here named Jared Eamons) as he is sent to a gay conversion center called Love In Action by his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. In the hands of sophomore director Joel Edgerton (himself playing Love in Action’s mouthpiece and leader Victor Sykes) however, this search for healing is detrimentally willing to sacrifice what’s real.
Like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which also tackled the subject earlier this year, the film misuses its good intentions by fulfilling them everywhere but its central character. Hedges is all still waters running deep as Jared, a young man of few words because he simply cannot summon them. He is particularly graceful when summoning the particularly queer anxiety of not appearing tense for the sake of avoiding added suspicion, of hiding in plain sight. Yet Edgerton isn’t quite interested in those nuances or strokes of insight, frustratingly keeping Jared at arm’s length and reducing him to his circumstances.
It’s not just Edgerton’s limited lens on queer experience that is a problem or why his approach is so ill-fitted to the material. For something so intimately experienced as this, Edgerton’s rendering feels accidentally indifferent, enamored with suffering and unengaged with the humanity involved. The film is much more fascinated by abuse, showcasing the evils of conversion therapy to horrorshow effect but with no real handle on its victims as fully formed people. But it’s also earnestly trying to earn its subject – it is mostly just misguided. The depth it lacks makes it as sterile as the greige pseudo-uniforms of masculine garb Jared gets lost behind.
Luckily the film’s cast does something to salvage the material, made even more casually manipulative by Edgerton’s imprecisely structured and stunted dialogue. Crowe as the performatively uncomplex pastor Marshall Eamons gives the film’s trickiest scenes a humble honesty, lending much needed understatement when the film most demands somethings real. As the doting mother Nancy, Kidman is the most illuminating, feeling complete in the way she surprises and makes the greeting card prose she’s given feel true to character. And then there is Hedges, finding a deep well of emotion as the film uses him as it pleases, giving something real when the film desperately needs it.
It’s a gay story told for straight audiences, sure – and maybe that’s okay to a certain degree. But one wishes for a film that doesn’t so aggressively push Jared’s interior life to the fringes of the narrative and its aims. Whereas Conley’s memoir was a detailed account of the family dynamic that brought him to conversion therapy and rescued him from resentment, Edgerton merely uses Jared as an instrument to the parents’ awakening. The film pulls “I love you no matter what” tactics rather than digging for real understanding of queer pain, of the inherent internalized guilt, or the weight of forgiveness. In some ways it even lacks the temerity to bolster the family’s convicted faith, instead opting for more respectful and uninvolving distance.
Boy Erased is built to make conflicted, conservative parents of queer children feel better about themselves, but does nothing to enforce knowing those children as they are. The effect is like a preachy parent facing a grown child and spouting “you’ll always be a baby to me” sweet nothings, building walls in doing so by placing blinders over the child’s humanity. Jared may ultimately get to demand more of his parents, but we as the audience are never allowed to see him as more than a functionary for his parents’ arcs. He remains defined exclusively through his trauma and his gracious acceptance of his parents’ limitations, thus making this journey of acceptance in both directions all the more frustrating.
While perhaps there is some value to Boy Erased‘s attempts to shock and elicit change in folks on the verge of accepting queer identities in their loved ones, it still feels like a film to satisfy only those viewers.