Sexuality isn’t a choice. To some, this statement is obvious, to others, profound, to others, deceitful. As one grows, as one accepts an attraction that is natural to them, even in the most liberal environment, the expedition can be frightening. It’s all the more daunting when who you are is perditious to your family, religion, and community. Director Joel Edgerton‘s Boy Erased, a film for which he stars in, is adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir which explores a teen who’s caught in just such a dilemma.
Boy Erased opens with, “I wish none of this had ever happened, but sometimes I thank God that it did,” a voiceover by our protagonist. Jared (Lucas Hedges) is a teen. A normal teen. But to those who surround him, gay isn’t normal. In an attempt to “fix” himself, Jared is submitting to a 12-day course of conversion therapy. Boy Erased is the second film this year to confront the topic, The Miseducation of Cameron Post being the other.
The film swings from the present-day “therapy” to flashbacks of Jared uncovering his sexuality. Jared’s father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), is a Baptist pastor. He’s also the picture of masculinity, expecting his son to spread his oats, as it were. Dumbstruck and ashamed when he finds his son is gay, it’s his wife, Jared’s mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), who accompanies their son to conversion therapy.
The conversion center itself is a hack organization, with a manual where “God” is misspelled as “dog.” The head guidance counselor who is part menacing spiritual leader, part quack psychologist, is Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton). His “therapy” asks his patients to self-report on their families, to undergo masculinity tasks like boot camp and batting cages, to demonstrate rage against their fathers (because there must be daddy issues), and to confess in front of the group as part of “moral inventory.” Therapy is meant to find an explanation, a flaw that caused these boys and girls to be attracted to the same sex.
Hedges is near perfect casting here. There’s a guarded and vulnerable aspect to his performance. He’s almost too low-key to succeed, but for a quiet role it works. Nevertheless, Hedges would have been aided with a better script. Edgerton is a fine director and actor, but the writing isn’t there.
While he captures the entrapped torment of those in therapy through his framing, it’s never there emotionally. The supporting characters are archetypes: there’s the shadowy artsy emo kid, Gary (Troye Sivan), the punk girl, Sarah (Jesse LaTourette), the body conscious low self-esteem kid, Cameron (Britton Sear), and the snitch to the man, Jon (Xavier Dolan). They’re never more than their cliches, never more than passing shadows during Jared’s therapy. The exploration of these individuals is zilch. And though Jared has a couple of flashback vignettes attached to him, one that is particularly traumatic and gruesome, while the other uplifting, his struggle could and should be more intimate.
While Boy Erased is encompassed with spectacular performances, from Hedges, to Crowe—who accomplishes the most in his limited screen time—and Kidman who, at this point—is amazing at everything she does—its detached and simple nature does not grant its subjectivity its full emotional platform. And when the film does climax into an emotional confrontation, it ultimately falls flat. It’s flat because there’s a major difference between Edgerton and Desiree Akhavan, director of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. One is straight and the other is bisexual. That bisexual perspective is missing here, which makes Boy Erased a reason why these stories should more routinely go to those directors whose experiences match the closest to its subject.