“Boy Erased” follows the story of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, “Lady Bird”), the son of a Baptist preacher who, upon coming out to his family, must join a gay conversion therapy program or risk ostracism from everyone he knows. The film was adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name and directed by Joel Edgerton (“The Gift”), who plays a supporting role himself. While Edgerton approaches the heavy subject material with appropriate weight and nuance, the film suffers from its excessively narrow focus on events rather than characters.
The movie’s first hour is nearly flawless. Edgerton’s ability to immerse viewers in the gravity of Jared’s experiences without breathless exposition is remarkable. The audience gets a clear sense of the pressure he is facing without an explicit understanding of the reason he is there. Hedges’s performance is suffused with a quiet, uneasy intensity that unleashes itself rarely but memorably throughout the movie. He effortlessly conveys through the timidness of his gait and the restraint of his smile that there is something deeply uncomfortable about the program. That queasiness is bitingly palpable and sustains for most of the runtime.
Other performances in the film, while generally strong, are somewhat underused. Nicole Kidman (“Big Little Lies”) plays Jared’s mother Nancy, and her genuine sympathy for him lends the film a much-needed source of levity. Russell Crowe (“The Nice Guys”), who plays Jared’s father, skillfully shows his character’s internal conflict in accepting his son.
Edgerton’s control over the visual palette of the therapy center is masterful. He recalls Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” in the way that that slow tracking shots across rows of boys turn individuals into monotonous uniforms. This comparison, whether intentional or not, is striking because the conversion program descends into gradual brutality as the film goes on.
The film’s most distracting flaw is the way it uses minor characters, mostly the other participants in the program, as mere vehicles to develop and alter Jared’s perspective. They rarely feel like actual people, only lines of dialogue that push the narrative forward. This is a painful misstep for a movie whose emotional impact rests on the devastation of conversion therapy. The connection we form to these minor characters feels so forced and artificial that it has the tendency to take one out of an otherwise engrossing experience.
Another issue of “Boy Erased” is that Edgerton frequently loses his sense of subtlety. One of Jared’s flashbacks reveals his first few months at college and involves one of the film’s most intense, haunting moments. The duration that this moment holds turns from excessive to insensitive because Edgerton’s camera stays stubbornly fixed in place where it could have — and should have — cut away. The film’s dramatic climax also lacks nuance, seeming to arrive out of thin air and neatly wrapping the central conflict in a box. We are left with the story that approximates a blunt and sanctimonious catalog of tribulations more than a memoir. Jared’s agency, while key to crafting the film’s ending and real-life resolution, is nonexistent until the story conjures it into existence.
In a word, the film is overdramatic. Edgerton doesn’t implore us to consider his message. He waves it in front of our noses until we have no choice but to accept it. This is accurately exemplified by the movie’s perplexing score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (“Barry”). While agreeably light and mellifluous in more intimate moments, the score occasionally transforms into a ridiculous ticking heartbeat that sounds like a Nine Inch Nails song recreated on GarageBand and more fitting for a B-movie horror flick.
That being said, “Boy Erased” is a story that is overdue and needs to be shared. Despite the film’s faults, it exposes the lasting harm of conversion therapy in a more visceral and visual way than has been shown before. What could have been an intensely moving story about an individual facing a collective struggle, it lacked the nuance of a single boy’s story or the depth of a nationwide issue. And yet, conversion therapy being depicted on a large screen is a notable step towards educating viewers about its harm. As the film tells us before the credits, 700,000 people have gone through gay conversion therapy at some point in their lives. Hopefully, this movie will alert its viewers — and politicians — to the destructive nature of such programs in the 36 states that still allow them.