FILM REVIEW – BOY ERASED. With Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Joel Edgerton, Russell Crowe, Flea. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use. 114 minutes.
The fact that so-called “gay conversion therapy” is still somehow legal in 36 states is an abomination. This vicious form of child abuse is perpetrated by charlatans peddling junk science to ignorant Bible bangers who pay a small fortune to let these ghouls torture their kids and brainwash them into believing that natural desires are moral failings. It’s no wonder so many of these children wind up killing themselves, and in any sane society the practice would be outlawed and its perpetrators imprisoned. But for that to hopefully happen someday we’ll probably need better movies about the subject than BOY ERASED, which I suppose means well but is exactly the kind of star-studded, issue-oriented snore that makes Oscar season such a slog.
Based on a memoir by Garrard Conley, the film chronicles a two-week stint in an Arkansas outpatient program called Love in Action. Now named Jared Eamons, our protagonist is played by the gifted Lucas Hedges of “Lady Bird” and “Manchester By The Sea,” here shipped off for de-gay-ification by his devastated pastor dad (Russell Crowe) and downbeat, dutiful mom (a brazenly unconvincing Nicole Kidman). Adapted for the screen and directed by actor Joel Edgerton, the movie is a mix of murky interior shots that first of all fails miserably at establishing any sense of day-to-day life in this Christian community.
There’s a severe paucity of detail, with drab sets and nondescript locations matching the script’s one-note characterizations. Everyone here is exactly who they first appear to be, which along with the absence of surprises in the story makes sitting through the picture feel like running out the clock. Edgerton has given himself the meatiest role as Love in Action’s tinpot Torquemada, a mustachioed martinet he plays with a vaguely mincing menace that feels borrowed from Kevin Spacey. (It will come as a shock to absolutely nobody that in a closing credits postscript we learn why the lady doth protest too much.)
Hedges is a promising talent but the character is written at too far a reserve from his own story, the bit players in the program suffering all the serious trauma while Jared silently looks on and heads back to a nearby hotel every day at five to hang with his supportive mother. Casting a superstar like Kidman in the role tips us off that it’s only gonna be so long before she goes full lioness to protect her cub, and however satisfying her ultimate diva moment may be, it only underlines the fact that Jared is typically the dullest character with the least at stake in any given scene. And god forbid he ever gets any enjoyment or even fleeting satisfaction from his sexual encounters, depicted here as tortures of the damned.
This past summer we saw the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “The Miseducation Of Cameron Post,” writer-director Desiree Akhavan’s tart take on conversion camps which played up the eye-rolling absurdity of these holy rollers but also stung when it needed to. While following a lot of unfortunately identical story beats, “Boy Erased” ladles on the prestige-picture solemnity like molasses, with Edgerton even lifting a couple of camera angles and lighting tricks from “The Godfather” to unintentionally comic effect. (He also seems to really like “Full Metal Jacket.”) As with many movies directed by actors, the banality of the staging quickly becomes a grind. It’s like leafing through a catalog of the most hackneyed shots imaginable.
“Boy Erased” seems to be missing scenes here and there, with a particularly egregious four-year time jump before the climax that leaves us with an awful a lot of questions about plot particulars, (Though I did chuckle aloud at the oh-so-elegant expository device conveying that Jared has in the interim become a successful freelance writer by the camera panning across a cluttered home office bulletin board with a prominently positioned Post-it note that reads: “Washington Post deadline.”)
Hedges and Crowe have a strikingly well-acted confrontation in the final reel that’s undercut by the movie’s bizarre refusal to depict a massive chunk of their relationship. It’s pretty much impossible to reconcile this young man’s firm acceptance of himself with the tremulous, self-doubting teen as seen in the rest of the picture — Edgerton neglected to include the journey that got him there. Presumably accidentally, the title is a deft critique of the screenplay.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.