Boy Erased is about as well-intentioned as a movie can be while still shamelessly misrepresenting the subject it so staunchly supports. There’s no question that its heart is in the right place, that writer-director Joel Edgerton is a fierce supporter of the LGBTQ community. But on the basis of the finished film, which alternates between uneasy thriller elements and over-obvious message-peddling with heavy-handed doom as the only unifying factor, he is not the right filmmaker to tackle this story or this subject.
The film is a study in the potential overreaches of allies, for Boy Erased is very transparently a queer film made by a straight dude. It pours on the sympathy but lacks the nuance of empathy. Its basis is Garrard Conley’s book, which offered a firsthand account of his experience in religious-based gay conversion therapy, but in film form it lacks that lived-in perspective. What results is an observational experience as opposed to an immersive one, a queer story with a straight gaze, a film that cares about its subject and characters but doesn’t know them.
In place of that knowledge, Boy Erased becomes a laborious dumping of look-at-this-awfulness clichés about the intolerant religious right, not so much a searing indictment as a ticking of standard boxes. Of course, I am fully aware that the religious right conducts itself with the sort of hateful impunity that warrants such a portrayal, its overt prejudice in the sanctimonious name of “family values” essentially obliterating the concept of self-parody. But that easy target is actually a hindrance for this film, which is content to browbeat us with slow-motion sequences of conversion therapy trauma while glossing over the plights of the victims. We are repeatedly encouraged to clutch our collective pearls at an abusive system but never get any human insight into those put through that system.
Even Jared (Lucas Hedges), the front-and-center audience proxy, is something of an enigma for the filmmakers, less a fully realized character than a symbolic figure that Edgerton’s screenplay can’t crack. Maybe that’s because Jared’s immersion into homosexuality is so hesitant and halted – he is, after all, a devoutly religious pastor’s son in the Deep South – or maybe it’s something more insidious, even if unintentionally so. Jared doesn’t fit the traditional mold of “gayness” – he’s not effeminate, he’s an athlete, he is one who could pass as straight if you never got to know him. Boy Erased tries occasionally to make casual points about everyone being unique and not fitting traditional patterns, but in presentation, this screenplay struggles to define Jared as a character precisely because he doesn’t square with pre-conceived notions. Edgerton is working only in shallow platitudes – gays are wonderful and conversion therapy is evil. Both of those statements are absolutely true, but the story can’t exist beyond that surface level without understanding the internal dynamics. How do these camps systematically break down these kids? What is their success rate? How does religious guilt weigh on these kids, especially as their minds are being actively warped at the hands of their “counselors”? Edgerton isn’t prepared to answer any of those questions.
In spite of it all, Hedges is very good, ably conveying equal parts doubt and defiance, embodying the soul of a character that the film itself can’t adequately define. Likewise, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are perfectly fine as Jared’s parents, though they (Kidman in particular) are forced to work around the physical burden of portraying caricatured Religious Southerners, from big hair to gaudy clothes. Edgerton also turns up on screen, successfully continuing his directorial trend of casting himself as the creepy mustachioed villain, following up his role in The Gift with this obviously repressed conversion counselor. But the performances are consumed by a screenplay that becomes a structural nightmare, constantly searching for a key to Jared’s identity by juggling multiple unclear timelines, each containing a pivotal moment that is intended to trace one step in Jared’s gay journey. It’s a hugely problematic construct, accidentally fitting right into the religious fallacy that homosexuality is the result of choices and events in one’s life. And I do think it’s accidental – Edgerton is nothing if not an earnestly outraged ally. But Boy Erased squelches that anger under layers of emotional mayonnaise, making an important subject seem like a soap opera.