Boy Erased is extremely well directed and acted, but just lacks the emotional edge over other films that have explored the pain and prejudice of being homosexual.
Based on the memoirs of Garrard Conley (depicted here by Lucas Hedges), Boy Erased follows the life of Conley after coming out as gay to his religious parents and being sent to Love in Action, a ‘conversion therapy’ centre which aims to change his sexual preference. It is the second feature film directed by Joel Edgerton, who made his stunningly assured directorial debut in 2014 with The Gift: a brooding and unpredictable revenge drama. While much recent discussion of young male acting talent has revolved around the undeniably brilliant Timothee Chalamet, lead actor Lucas Hedges has consistently proven himself to be an extremely skilled actor. He has shown great emotional range in a host of outstanding films, such as Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The film uses a flashback structure to great effect. We open with a very well executed sequence of Garrard moving to the ‘conversion centre’ and undergoing induction. Then, throughout Garrard’s time at the programme we learn about his past relationships to his partners, parents and the church through flashbacks. This conveys how Garrard is still reflecting on these memories and doubting his sexual preference. What makes Garrard’s story more compelling is that initially he seems keen to change (to heterosexuality) out of the guilt of ‘letting down’ his religious parents. Garrard’s character arc from this point, to a point of self-love and acceptance, is very well realised. However, the film falls short on standout dramatic sequences. While it is made very clear how vulgar conversion therapy is, it lacks scenes of triumphant rebellion, outside of one argument between Garrard and Victor Sykes. The result is a film that lacks the emotional sucker punch that could elevate it to the next level.
Edgerton’s second directorial outing shows that he is truly a talented director – The Gift was by no means a one-hit wonder. In The Gift, Edgerton was very skilled at crafting tension and a sense of dread and he employs this skill to great effect in key sequences of Boy Erased. Two scenes standout as particularly chilling and uncomfortable, one being a violent sexual encounter and the other being a religious beating of one of the members of the conversion programme. At the same time, Edgerton is able to craft more tender moments to balance out the darker aspects of the film. A one-night encounter Garrard has with a college boy is presented with an almost dreamlike quality due to the lighting and music. Where Edgerton is less successful is the dialogue, as he also wrote the screenplay for the film. While the dialogue is realistic and conveys character well, at times it seems stilted and unengaging. Much like the film’s dramatic scenes, it lacks memorable lines or conversation. The dialogue between Garrard and his father (played by Russel Crowe) seems particularly neglected and lacks emotional depth.
The cast is unsurprisingly impressive. As always, Nicole Kidman is on top form. Her character struggles between her religious beliefs and a desire to protect her son with great nuance. Her arc is well executed as she moves from genuinely believing she is helping her son to realising the pain conversion therapy is causing him. While this arc seems obvious and cliché, Kidman embodies it with great conviction. This makes for her relationship with Garrard by far the highlight of the film, particularly since Hedges again delivers a striking and visceral performance. As stated, the scenes between Hedges and Crowe are disappointing. The fact that Garrard’s father is a Baptist pastor should have made their scenes together particularly engaging. Instead, they fail to adequately explore their complex relationship. As much time is devoted to their relationship in the film’s third act, the momentum of the film slows.
Overall, Boy Erased is a well-executed drama, with a brilliant turn from Kidman and Edgerton again proving himself to be an exciting new directing talent. While you believe and engage with all that is happening on screen, the drama never quite becomes particularly exceptional. For those unfamiliar with conversion therapy, this is indeed a worthwhile watch. However, other films have depicted the strife of LGBTQ+ prejudice with far greater emotional impact.
Boy Erased (2019), directed by Joel Edgerton, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, certificate 15.