Boy Erased is one of those movies that has its heart is in the right place but almost falters due to its slightly hampered execution. It does have its high qualities and it does its part by keeping the message alive about conversion therapy which is sadly legal in some states. However, it still doesn’t quite come together despite its admirable efforts.
The film is based on a true story about the life of Garrard Conley who was sent to conversion therapy by his parents after being outed as gay. But Jared Eamons, who is the main character played by Lucas Hedges and is the fictionalized version of Garrard Conley, is ironically, a very underwritten character. It is unclear whether this was intended or not but the character of Jared feels like a rather blank slate. What’s even more ironic is that the film is called Boy Erased yet more detail is given to the supporting characters.
For example, there’s Jared’s mother Nancy played by Nicole Kidman. Initially, she’s oblivious to what Jared is being put through before digging deeper into the teachings from the camp he’s in. Also, the character of Gary, played by Troye Sivan, is given a fair amount of detail. Gary is a member of Jared’s camp who sees through the lies that those in the camp are trying to force feed him. However, he still “plays the part” and makes them believe that their teachings are working on him.
As it turns out, it’s the supporting players that emerge on top. Nicole Kidman navigates the arc of Nancy with subtle precision and she gets a monologue, which would surely be her Oscar clip should she be a nominee, that acts as a shot to the heart. Plus, Russell Crowe does his best work in years as Jared’s Baptist father Malcolm, flawlessly demonstrating his conflict over committing to his faith while trying to accept his son for who he is. Much like Kidman, he gets to have a powerful confrontational moment with Lucas Hedges where he seamlessly demonstrates Malcolm’s duality.
When it comes to Lucas Hedges himself, he manages to have a fair amount of emotionally explosive acting moments despite being handicapped by the character’s limited development. For the most part, Jared is portrayed as very reserved and we aren’t given much insight into his internalized nature. It’s quite frustrating because the film is supposed to be about a queer teen finding his voice and seeking the courage to be himself. So why is it that we aren’t hearing much of his voice?
It is admirable that Joel Edgerton, who directed, wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in the project, decided to tell this story. However, with all due respect to Edgerton, I can’t help but wonder how a queer filmmaker would’ve tackled the subject matter. This doesn’t mean that straight directors cannot ever make films depicting the queer experience. There have been plenty of amazing queer films by straight filmmakers just like how there have been some terrific films about straight people by queer filmmakers. That being said, because the topic of conversion therapy is so specifically tied into the queer experience, it may have been more beneficial for a gay director to helm the project to give the main character more of a voice.
But after making his directorial debut with the very tense thriller The Gift, Joel Edgerton at least showed that his debut wasn’t lightning in a bottle because he handles this film with an intriguing aesthetic. Along with cinematographer Eduard Grau, what he does to capture the grim nature of conversion therapy is constantly engulf our main character in darkness. It’s also like Jared is trapped in a wide but dark closet to capture the metaphor of him being closeted even though he ironically was forced out of the closet.
Overall, despite its major writing flaws, Boy Erased still features terrific acting performances and as previously mentioned, it does its part in keeping the message alive about the dangers of conversion therapy. Although our main protagonist is sadly underdeveloped, allowing Boy Erased to practically live up to its title, it is still an adequately made effort.