Boy Erased starts with a family shrouded in darkness and silence, a fitting beginning for a film about bigotry and a refusal to understand. It’s a quietly powerful opening scene to Joel Edgerton’s second foray into directing, but the rest of Boy Erased cannot keep up the same level of interest. As a PSA, about the continuation of the barbaric practice of gay-to-straight conversion on minors in the 36 US states where it is still somehow legal, it is well-intentioned, but Edgerton can never quite manage to transfer the inherent power of the subject matter into emotional resonance.
Based on the memoir of Garrard Conley (renamed Jared Eamonn for the film and played by Lucas Hedges), a pastor’s son who was forcibly outed by a college acquaintance and then sent to a conversion program, Boy Erased jumps around in time. We see happier times at home with Jared’s mum and dad (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) as well as his early, faltering experiences with his sexuality while he steadily realises just how awful the institution he has been carted off to really is. Edgerton, in addition to directing and writing, plays the vile lead counsellor, but the other kids on the program get less attention, and the world feels empty as a result.
Hedges, Kidman, and Crowe all put in decent performances, but the writing is very flat. Dialogue is perfunctory and major emotional climaxes come and go without any real impact or connection. Boy Erased simply goes through the motions, and whilst the muted and cold colour palette makes sense in context, keeping the audience at a respectable remove does not. Yes, this is a film about emotions being trapped and isolated, but in too faithfully sticking to that tone, Edgerton limits himself to a rather plodding story.
It doesn’t help Boy Erased’s case that The Miseducation of Cameron Post came out this year. A fictional take on conversion camps, its take on similar subject matter was handled with far more deftness and life, leaving Boy Erased – a more obviously awards-seeking film – looking drab and redundant in comparison. Lucas Hedges has proved himself a sterling supporting actor, and I have no doubt he could be a leading man on a par with his contemporary Timothee Chalamet, but this is not the showcase that it should be.