A strong cast can’t elevate run-of-the-mill conversion therapy drama
Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
A case could be made 2018 was the year of Lucas Hedges. The breakout star of Manchester by the Sea starred as a troubled teenager in Ben is Back and provided a strong supporting turn as a troubled teen in Mid90s. Now, we see him play a troubled teen in Boy Erased.
Hedges finds enough nuances in these characters to make them unique. But while the actor is technically proficient, emotional resonance is lacking. The problem is widespread in Boy Erased, a sober and academic film that, while ethically unimpeachable, misses the story’s heart by a mile.
Based on the memoir of the same title by Garrard Conley, the film follows the hellish journey of Jared Eamons (Hedges), the only son of Christian conservative parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe). Following an incident at college (the teen is raped by his roommate), dad ships Jared to a gay conversion centre.
Through a combination of pseudo-psychology and bullying, the program forces self-loathing and homophobia on the young men. Jared has a better sense of self than most of his peers and attempts to keep a low profile, a “fake it until you make it” approach he naively imagines will carry him past the finish line. His mother is sympathetic, but dad believes “pray the gay away” is an effective therapy.
Director Joel Edgerton (The Gift) plays it way too safe, considering he’s preaching to the choir. The audience is instinctively with the lead, no need to show why gay conversion centres are awful. We know. Despite the psychological violence Jared endures, the filmmaker seems oblivious to the reality that his biggest problem isn’t internment, it’s his loneliness.
There are characters far more interesting than the protagonist who go unexplored. The chief “therapist” (Edgerton himself) describes himself as an ex-gay. The lengths someone will go to both deny their sexuality, and encourage others to do the same, are unfathomable. I’m not big on Xavier Dolan, but he hits the right notes here as a true believer. Russell Crowe has evolved into a fine character actor and walks a fine line between fundamentalist preacher and loving father.
Jared has a clarity about who he is that nobody else possesses. This turns him into the film’s straight man (no pun intended), and the least flashy figure on screen. Because of this and the squareness of the character arc, Boy Erased comes across as dry and fearful of deviating from a formula that would tickle anybody but Mike Pence the wrong way.