It wouldn’t be fair to call Boy Erased an Afterschool Special. There’s a lot in here that ABC wouldn’t have touched in its run from 1972 to 1997. The true story of a young man sent by his religious parents to a conversion-therapy center that they hope will “cure” him of his homosexuality is presented in a forthright manner. There’s ugliness here that the mostly happy ending cannot wash away, and doesn’t try to. That being said, there’s something in this movie’s pat conclusions and conveniently-placed confrontations that would feel more appropriate if watched during the afternoon with commercial breaks.
Based on Garrard Conely’s 2016 memoir, Boy Erased starts with Jared (Lucas Hedges, looking slightly peeved, as normal) being driven to a therapy center by his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). The mood is speckled with ominous foreboding but drifty and cool, the tone of a survivor looking back through a detached lens. Jared’s brief voiceover remarks on the ugliness of what we’re about to see, noting that it was probably best in the end. “I thank God” that it happened, he says.
Jared thanks God because he’s a true believer. His father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), runs a car dealership during the day. But at home and at church he’s a minister who fairly glows with the numinous rapture of Christian ecstasy. Jared looks content to be part of the family and community, but for one issue. Perhaps sensing that Jared’s romantic inclinations are towards men, Marshall pushes the idea that Jared should marry his girlfriend Chloe (Madelyn Cline). Instead, Jared breaks up with her and goes off to college. When a friendship there leads to a shocking scene of sexual violence, Jared admits the truth to his parents. “I think about men,” he says, racked with guilt over thinking he’s disappointed them and failed his god.
The conversion camp itself is a creepy black hole of lies, denial, pretense, and physical and emotional abuse. Under the hectoring ranting of the lead therapist, Victor Sykes (writer-director Joel Edgerton), the young men and women are told they’re not to blame for their supposed sickness, it’s their family’s fault. They fill out elaborate family trees and affix labels to various relatives whose failings (addiction, pornography, homosexuality) can be shown by Sykes’ highly suspect Bible-thumping quasi-Freudianism to have brought on their same-sex attractions.
The absurdity of the center’s shoddy bullying and sermonizing is mostly not played for laughs or eye-rolling mockery, in the manner of this summer’s lighter and in many cases more successful conversion-therapy drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan, 2018). One exception to that might be Flea’s surprise turn as a sometimes shrill and sometimes menacing drill instructor-like tattooed ex-convict brought in to teach the boys how to be more “manly”; a plan whose archaic gender norms get upended by Jared’s surefooted athleticism.
Oddly, it’s Jared’s confidence in part that keeps the movie’s drama from hitting some of its expected notes. He sees the gaping disconnect between the loving god that he was raised with and the vengeful nonsense Sykes is throwing around all too easily. He can also see the toll it’s taking on the center’s other residents, who range from the self-harming and self-hating to one boy who tells Jared to just lie and go along with the program in order to get out faster.
However, Boy Erased keeps from making any consistent impact as a drama by the seeming ease with which Jared manages the confrontations with his parents. These moments are all acted with unassailable and emotive brio by the trio of leads, even if their depictions—Hedges’ flinty vulnerability, Crowe’s resonant man-of-god stubbornness, Kidman’s brittle Southern blonde shell poorly concealing a loving fire—are all just a bit too on the nose.
But for one speech from Marshall about the glories of heterosexual family life, the dialogue rarely digs beneath the surface to get at the ugliness, anti-scientific mania, and logic-blinding fanaticism that lies at the heart of conversion therapy. One exception to that is the movie’s one sharp and resonant line of dialogue: Asked by Jared’s parents to test his blood for testosterone, a doctor played by Cherry Jones tells Jared she’s a religious woman. “But I’ve also been to medical school.”
This is the second movie from Joel Edgerton, the Australian actor usually seen in the kind of glowering but soulful tough-guy roles that Jeremy Renner is probably up for. His directorial debut, 2015’s The Gift—which he also wrote—was a surprisingly surprising yuppie-stalker-noir that upended expectations and turned into a thoughtful examination of cruelty. His work on Boy Erased is both more conventional and less skilled. While he gives his cast generous room in which to develop their characters, Edgerton cannot spin what they’re doing into a coherent or impactful drama. Key scenes are muffled by subpar writing and an almost hands-off approach that keeps the movie’s viewpoint at a remove. We might see Jared’s torment and have an inkling about his internal struggle, but we rarely feel it. The emotions are often as pat as the too-little conclusion.
That may not be the worst thing for a message movie about conversion therapy. After all, the second Afterschool Special, Follow the Northern Star, was about a white boy helping his friend escape slavery via the Underground Railroad. That was five years before Roots (1977) took its belated assault on Middle America’s self-protecting amnesia about slavery. If Boy Erased does its job, then many Americans who have no idea what conversion therapy is will be informed and appalled. Some will be motivated to join the fight to outlaw the practice. That will be something almost all of 2018’s other mediocre dramas won’t be able to say.
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See PopMatters interview with director Joel Edgerton, here.