In 2018, we talk often (and rightfully) about the importance of artists from marginalized groups telling their own stories. Part of the issue is professional: too long have people who aren’t cis, straight, white men been excluded from directing and writing jobs in American film.
Another facet is avoiding even more of the many times we’ve seen Hollywood attempt to tell diverse stories only to tumble into the same old traps — your movies ostensibly about underrepresented folks where the wrong people end up saving the day. We want women, people of color, and LGBT filmmakers behind the camera because we know all too well what The Help looks like and don’t want to watch it every year.
Where Boy Erased is concerned, we perhaps see the nuanced wrinkles of this problem. Few would argue Joel Edgerton, star of such films as Warrior and Black Mass, has mangled this film version of the gay conversion therapy memoir by Gerrard Conley. Far from it. But there may be a ceiling of insight on the movie it doesn’t even know is there.
Mostly, Boy Erased is a good film. It’s acted very well by Lucas Hedges as Jared (Gerrard) and Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his baptist Arkansas parents. To his credit, Edgerton has a clear idea of how he wants to direct the scenes in the conversion camp, possibly because he’s in them. Edgerton plays Victor Sykes, the camp’s unchecked and manipulative director. How Jared came to be in conversion therapy is told through flashbacks as we’re led into its drab, cloistered confines, like an abandoned middle school that’s about to be demolished over winter break. There’s something dreadfully intriguing about becoming acquainted with this evangelical bubble trying to hide its methods from the outside world. “Pray away the gay” is but a polite and foul euphemism for the concentrated persecution that actually goes on there, and meeting the camp’s many supporting characters recalls One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted.
This is, on some level, a message movie. Gay conversion therapy, while covered extensively in journalism and literature, has never been depicted in a major motion picture before to my knowledge. Edgerton must know that with two generational movie stars (Crowe and Kidman) and a rising young actor (Hedges) attached, Boy Erased may well be $20 million worth of people’s introduction to the horrors of this “therapy,” the flagrant, intimidating opposite of the acceptance people are meant to come to through counseling. The film is adept at unpacking the horror of that setting, a place where every forced confession ends with a dead-eyed “we love you,” but all the curriculum is fundamentally based on hate: hatred of gay people (obviously), but also hatred of self, of the process of attaining health, of the outside world, even of the parents who sent their children to the facility.
What ultimately stops Boy Erased from being great is its broadness. The film has saddled itself with the responsibility of bringing viewers into this world of the treatment center, but not necessarily into the world of Jared. He’s an aspiring and then successful writer whose creativity we don’t see. He’s a devout Christian whose personal relationship with faith we don’t understand. He’s a college student at the time he enters the camp who can’t seem to imagine life without his parents’ home and rules. Jared experiences two meaningful sexual encounters with fellow college students, one reassuring and one traumatic, but what do they mean for the way he approaches the adult relationship he has with a man in the movie’s final act?
These unfortunate vagaries might hamstring all actors, but they especially do no favors to someone as subtle and detail-hungry as Lucas Hedges. The breakout star of Manchester By The Sea and Lady Bird is, even at 21, a genuine character actor. Think back on the scene in which he finally breaks down in Manchester when the frozen meals topple from the freezer. That’s everything you need to know about that character’s emotional state with no plot bullseye attached. By contrast, Boy Erased leans too heavily toward the showdown, toward the climactic tell-off, and toward scenes that require a certain righteous tenor that’s simply not Hedges’ forte.
The movie shines a much brighter light on Jared’s parents and what they learn to accept about their son. The role of the big-haired Southern mother who eventually comes around to protecting her child like a lioness is almost too easy for Kidman, even though she’s quite good at it. Russell Crowe, meanwhile, wallows in his family legacy falling apart, eventually hitting some notes of contrition I didn’t know he could. But again, is our attention in the right place? How does a movie based on a memoir end up looking away from its subject so often?
Go ahead and say this is circumstantial evidence of an identity politik criticism, but it’s a quietly convicting way to view a movie that feels carefully and tenderly made but is still somehow erasing its boy — not through malice but through broad strokes. Every year, there are two or three dramas in the vogue of “Oscar” that are missing some essential cinematic quality. Following in the footsteps of Hidden Figures in 2016 and The Post in 2017, Boy Erased is an early contender for 2018’s Best Well-Intentioned Drama that ends up with too much on its mind other than character-driven storytelling.