By Casey Campbell
Do you need a brazenly original concept to propel an emotionally moving experience? Not when you have the cast that lifts Boy Erased from connect-the-dots drama to unfortunately timely and (almost) entirely engulfing memoir.
Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directorial feature isn’t as bold as his previous film, but it never needs to reach new grounds to impact the audience. It’s a performance movie where the cast is given room to fully engulf themselves in their characters, and it thankfully pays off.
Lucas Hedges, in his first leading role, continues to prove himself as the eponymous boy erased. Jared (Hedges) is forced to attend gay conversion therapy by his father, a Baptist preacher blinded by religion played by Russell Crowe, and his mother, a heartbreaking Nicole Kidman. Once inside, well, it’s exactly what you’d expect.
Boy Erased is the kind of story with developments seen coming from a mile away, with emotional and physical abuse and a cast of mostly archetypal characters scattered throughout. What helps is Edgerton’s script, adapted from the true-life memoir of Garrard Conley. Nothing is played as manipulative to the audience, and even the most melodramatic moments contain levity and empathy. It may lack subtlety in some areas, but it’s a film dealing with a subject that’s unable to be handled in any way other than the reality.
Unfortunately, when Edgerton does attempt to infuse some structural originality, it comes off as jolting. Throughout the film, Jared is asked to remember his “sinful” actions, which include acting on his nature: being attracted to men. But each short vignette feels out of place, or that, at the very least, they could’ve been included in a less jarring way.
The film gets away with having a story that’s been told before because the message it sends is so much more important than its plot. It’s sad to think that the story of Boy Erased is predictable because it’s about someone being forced via scare tactics and threats to be something that they aren’t. Surely this kind of thing shouldn’t be the norm. Surely this kind of thing should be alien to us. But it’s not.
Jared felt utterly terrified to come forward and be himself to his parents, and for good reason. They offered him the chance to either change, or move out. And it’s not like he came forward with a damning recognition of himself. He was just gay.
The film offers many thoughts on masculinity and the social weight America puts on such an abstract concept. The camp forced the recipients to undergo lessons in posture. Stand up straight, no crossing your legs, hands on hips with fingers forward. It also taught that anger was necessary to become a better man – that screaming at an empty chair will somehow fix you. That finding someone to be angry at will make it easier for you to become straight. It took the worst parts of masculinity and declared them imperative to the betterment of your soul. If that’s not a damning enough deterrent to the more imbecilic notions in Christianity, let the incessant Bible readings and “sin” speeches guide you to the door.
Boy Erased does well in providing a template for contemplation in regards to the action, and more often destructive in-action, when it comes to American youth. It also acts as a realistic depiction of the disgusting habit religions can have of shaping their followers, rather than accepting them.
Overall Grade: B+
Originally published at Emertainment Monthly: