Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased: A Memoir, writer director and Joel Edgerton does fine work in adapting from the source material a story of familial and internal strife that intrinsically works onscreen in the micro scale opposed to the macro. In bits and pieces it’s a touching, often frustrating story about one young man’s hardship as he’s faced with impossible choices once he reveals his sexuality to his conservative parents. On the whole, once we’ve taken a step back, it’s a film that spends too much time dragging its feet in the first act, picking up the pace in the second before a jarring pivot into the last third. Uneven due to its odd pace, Boy Erased loses some of its potential impact due to a script that clearly understands the important story it’s telling and its continued significance but doesn’t quite know just how to lay it all out in a way that utilizes the films potential to the greatest effect.
Edgerton largely acquits himself nicely with the material, handling moments of delicate intimacy with moving finesse. It’s a heavy subject, dealing with Jared (Lucas Hedges) who is forced by his father, a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe) and, to a lesser extent, his mother (Nicole Kidman) to take part in a gay conversion therapy program. Due to so little moments of levity, the ones that shine through do so all the brighter, illuminating a version of the story laced with more optimism and less internal and external conflict. The highlight of the film comes somewhere close to the half way mark when Jared goes home with a man after an art show, simply to share his bed and experience a sense of intimacy with another man that allows him to explore his sexuality in a safe place. It’s tender with low hum of sensuality as the look uses longing, drawn out looks and whispers of touches to express the wanton curiosity and want that has laid dormant beneath Jared’s upbringing for so long, his other shot at this type of closeness having been foiled by a shocking act of cruelty. It’s a scene that merely hints at what might’ve been’s and the result is enthralling, especially paired with “Revelations”, a song singer-songwriter (and co-star) Troye Sivan wrote for the film.
Edgerton too understands building dread , often leaving the camera stagnant so that a shocking act of violence, already viscerally horrific, is given an extra layer of trauma.
The story itself is inherently fascinating, especially when you partner this film with this year’s similarly focused The Miseducation of Cameron Post; the problems are a few and mainly lay in a screenplay that lets down the source material, sticking too resolutely to a beat by beat process of storytelling. Had the film explored the fringes of this world and spent time with supporting characters who expressed more natural intrigue, Boy Erased could’ve offered itself more readily available stability. Hinting at such rich storytelling opportunities, the supporting players open up the curiosity of what a film with them at the center might look like. From an emotionally crippled former jock (played by Britton Sear) who has one of the most powerfully resonant moments in a film with just a brief, passing act of kindness, to Dolan’s self-delusional Jon who refuses to engage in any human touch, these characters are complex in a way Jared isn’t. Jesse LaTourette’s Sarah is given fractured moments of characterization but her haunted disposition tells of a story in need to be written. Even Sivan’s Gary, coolly accepting of his new normal because he knows he can endure it and move past this traumatizing blip in his life offers up a sense of relief so warm that we want to spend more time in his bubble. Jared being the son of a preacher and Hedges’s natural magnetism makes the character engaging enough to want to follow but with such fine periphery characters it’s a shame we couldn’t spend more time with them.
Kidman and Crowe deliver the two best performances in the film as Jared’s parents. The former offers just the right amount of warmth and humor to promise hope in the family dynamic while Crowe submerges himself into this character, unlikable through his actions and charismatic enough to understand why he’s ended up in the position he’s in in life.
Cinematographer Eduard Grau brings the story to vibrant life, juxtaposing the shocking grays and whites of the conversion therapy group that take place in run down and vacant classrooms and cafeterias compared to Jared’s life outside of those walls where color pops and he can run for miles, breathless and angry but untethered. Visually the film is stunning, with Grau and Edgerton making what could’ve been a very washed out film come alive.
Proof that a powerful story doesn’t always easily translate to transcendent cinema, Boy Erased is undoubtedly effective in its attempt to earn an emotional response and by the time the consequential beats of catharsis take place, we are fully invested in the lives of these characters. It’s a wholly empathetic film that tries to bolster its audience and characters, granting the audience permission to latch on and find humility and hope as Jared, Nancy and co., do.