Australian actor and director Joel Edgerton brings Garrard Conley’s acclaimed memoir, Boy Erased to the screen for his sophomore directorial debut. Though scattered with missteps and narrative carelessness, Boy Erased is a sincere and enjoyable film, whose cast more-often-than-not makes it worth watching.
The film stars Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons, Conley’s onscreen counterpart, and Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his mother and father respectively. Jared, a recently-enrolled college student, has been outed to his religious fundamentalist family and community under dubious circumstances. His father presents Jared with a “choice:” pray the gay away at a conversion camp, or forfeit the right to live in his home should he choose to live a homosexual lifestyle. With no feasible alternatives in sight, Jared relents and opts for the former choice. The film alternates between showing Jared’s traumatic experiences inside the Love in Action conversion therapy program, his familial relationships, and his homosexual experiences prior to his outing.
Boy Erased, as personal a story as it already is, misses out on key details and elaborations to make the film work. Though Edgerton’s primary focus is on Jared and his repressed homosexuality in the camp throughout the movie, moments of intimate sexuality and passion from Jared are rare, and typically reserved for awkward outbursts of anger from the young man.
Jared’s platonic relationships with his fellow campmates can barely even be considered relationships at all; the rest of the cast in the camp are hardly explored beyond a few conversations with Jared, save for the unbearable camp leader played by Edgerton himself, and an incredibly-out-of-place performance by Flea as a born-again Christian. Pop-musician Troye Sivan makes an appearance as another camper in the film, but his acting potential is left untapped. It’s difficult to care much for characters we only see glimpses of, making their more heavyweight moments hit lighter than they should.
While the daily practices of the camp are effectively shown to be absurd throughout the film, certain injustices that Jared and his campmates do face at Love in Action are often dealt with a sophistication equivalent to marking off items on a checklist. Even Jared’s experience with sexual assault toward the beginning of the film at college isn’t addressed as it should be.
Boy Erased is saved by the stellar performances of its principal stars, Hedges and Kidman. Hedges effectively displays the helplessness and trauma of dealing with his sexual repression. The confrontations against his religious captors are charged with emotion, but not overly so, and the moments where the stress of conversion therapy reduces Jared to tears are painful to watch. Kidman shares a strong chemistry with Hedges as his mother, Nancy, who is similarly caught up in a situation she has little say in. The will to save her son comes off as quite genuine, and their mother-son relationship is one of the more heartwarming elements of the film. Crowe’s performance as Marshall is rather muted however distant he may be from Jared, and the nuances of their relationship aren’t given much attention save for their heart-to-heart at the film’s conclusion.
While Boy Erased is fairly balanced narratively, this ends up being one of its bigger flaws; the film fits in somewhat developed explorations of Jared’s conversion therapy experiences and relationships, but sometimes fails to deliver enough depth to render them emotionally significant. The performances from Hedges and Kidman help to pick up the pieces however, and fill the gaps in sincerity and affect. Boy Erased sometimes comes off as an awareness film, but given its subject matter, it’s a story that needs to be told, and though it may be a bit lazily told, it is a story that will resonate with many LGBTQ+ individuals.
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