The young actor Lucas Hedges, who was first introduced to audiences in the wonderful Manchester By the Sea, has a pleasing naturalism about him. He never over-acts, he’s not histrionic—he’s solid and still and attentive. Physically, he’s handsome, but not too handsome—he seems like a kid from your math class. I’m a fan of his work—he was also great in Lady Bird—but I’m not totally convinced he’s a movie star. Therefore, putting him at the center of the lowkey drama Boy Erased, based on the true story of the son of a Baptist preacher forced to undergo gay conversion therapy, may not have been the best move. The film itself is a model of restraint—almost too restrained. For a film that deals with some pretty emotional material, Boy Erased can be strangely muted, it never heats up. It doesn’t help that the whole thing is shot in a drab shade of industrial brownish gray.
Earlier this year, we had the mediocre indie The Miseducation of Cameron Post, also about gay conversion therapy. In that film, the kids mostly raged against the program. But Hedges’ Jared is a religious boy and a dutiful son who is a parent pleaser. He wants the therapy to work, but he’s smart and observant enough to realize that the program is a sham. What’s more, he’s a natural empath and he sees the pain the program is inflicting upon his fellow participants.
The other kids in the program are mostly archetypes, not fully fleshed out (curiously, The Miseducation of Cameron Post had a similar flaw): We have the singer Troye Sivan playing a clever boy who knows how to tell the program administrators exactly what they want to hear; Canadian actor-director Xavier Dolan as an abused boy with a kind of coiled self-loathing; and Britton Sear as a gay football player who, in one disturbing scene, endures his entire family joining in on the program’s pseudo-religious abuses. There is a girl in the program, too, who exchanges meaningful glances with Jared, but the screenplay is so threadbare, I have no idea what those looks are supposed to mean.
The film touches on some potentially incendiary material—Jared is assaulted by a closeted gay boy at school (Joe Alwyn), and this incident is what leads to his outing—but doesn’t develop it much. Everything in the screenplay has the ring of truth—the faux chumminess of the program’s staff, the way they try to blame the participants’ homosexuality on some deviancy in their family—but nothing is explored in a particularly rich or satisfying way.
Still, the actors do solid work, especially Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Jared’s parents. Kidman plays Nancy Eamons as a dutiful preacher’s wife, a polite Southern belle who begins to realize, with horror, that she is enabling the abuse of her son. (She has something akin to a feminist awakening.) And this is Crowe’s best performance in years—he loves his son but can’t reconcile the boy’s sexuality with his own rigid religious views, and this conflict eats away at him. His pain is palpable, even when he’s not saying a word.
Boy Erased is directed by the great Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who also plays the head of the gay conversion program. I appreciate the realism and subtlety he was striving for here, but I think he went too far. Sometimes I just want a little more movie in my movie.