Well acted and thoughtfully directed, Boy Erased is a compassionate memoir that nevertheless struggles to leave much of an emotional impact.
After making a splash with his feature directorial debut on Blumhouse's dramatic thriller The Gift, actor turned filmmaker Joel Edgerton returns to the helm for Boy Erased, a movie based on Garrard Conley's memoir about his experiences as a young man in a gay conversion therapy program. Much like this year's true story-inspired drug addiction drama Beautiful Boy, Edgerton's sophomore go-round as a director has garnered acclaim for its sensitive handling of (sadly) relevant subject matter, as much as anything else. Indeed, in many ways, the two films have similar strengths and weaknesses, on the whole. Well acted and thoughtfully directed, Boy Erased is a compassionate memoir that nevertheless struggles to leave much of an emotional impact.
Lucas Hedges stars in Boy Erased as Jared Eamons, a semi-fictionalized version of Garrard Conley who, like the real Conley, grew up in Arkansas with his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman), a hairdresser, and his father Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist pastor, and had a generally happy upbringing. However, shortly after Jared begins college, he is sexually assaulted by a classmate named Henry (Joe Alwyn), who then proceeds to call Jared's mother - pretending to be a school counselor - and claims that Jared came onto him. In response, Jared admits to his parents that he is gay and has known as much for some time now.
Marshall thusly makes arrangements for Jared to enroll in a gay conversation therapy program, which Jared reluctantly agrees to after his father makes it clear: if he doesn't attend, he will no longer be welcome in his parents' home. While Jared does his best to abide by the program's rules and procedures, it quickly becomes obvious to him that the sessions run by head therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton) are immensely unhelpful, disturbing, and otherwise harmful to those in attendance. As such, Jared is faced with the difficult choice: does he continue down this dark road or risk being permanently shunned by the rest of his family?
Both written and directed by Edgerton, Boy Erased is genuinely empathetic in the way it portrays its main characters and refuses to paint anyone in shades of black and white, even after they say and/or do otherwise despicable things. The movie is further successful in the way it allows its three leads (Jared, Nancy, and Marshall) to evolve and change - or not change - in a believable fashion, which makes their larger character arcs ring all the more true, in the end. At the same time, the film's narrative starts to feel repetitious and strained the further along it goes, especially once Jared enters Sykes' program and the story devolves into one long wait for the former to put his foot down and decide that he's done with all of this self-hatred. As was also the case with Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased is based on source material that simply may not lend itself all that immediately to a three-act movie.
Another issue that both Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased suffer from is that they are simply too limited and non-inclusive in their approaches. Specifically, Boy Erased never really examines the privileges that Jared enjoys as a young white man who (due to factors like his appearance) is able to hide his queerness easier than many of the other people at his gay conversation therapy program. Moreover, the other members of Jared's program - as played here by names like actor/filmmaker Xavier Dolan, performer/musician Troye Sivan, and relative newcomer Jesse LaTourette - simply aren't afforded much in the way of development and exist primarily to move Jared's personal journey along, more than anything else. Because the film invests so much time and effort into Jared, Nancy, and Marshall's storylines, its attempts to pack an emotional punch with its other character threads (and there are a handful of them) tend to fall flat.
The great performances by Hedges, Kidman, and Crowe naturally help to elevate Boy Erased as a whole, in this regard. All three are strong in their respective roles and do their part to make the Eamons feel like multi-faceted individuals and not the stereotypes that they easily could've ended up being. His other storytelling issues aside, Edgerton's experience as an actor clearly serves him well as a director and allows him to bring out the best in not only the film's leads, but also its supporting ensemble. As a result, even actors like Alwyn and Théodore Pellerin (who portrays Xaiver, a young man whom Jared shares an intimate night with) are able to leave an impression here, despite their very limited screen-time. Edgerton further avoids hogging the spotlight during his appearances as Sykes, yet manages to hint at the character's own personal demons and struggles... though, perhaps not enough for Sykes' story to resonate quite as much as was seemingly intended.
Indeed, Edgerton's aesthetically and emotionally muted approach to dramatizing Boy Erased is both beneficial and a hindrance to the story being told here. The subdued color scheme and unobtrusive camerawork of A Single Man DP Eduard Grau's cinematography serves to ground the film's narrative and prevents it from coming across as exploitative, yet leaves the proceedings feeling a bit too listless for their own good. Admittedly, the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (who also provided the music for The Gift) does its part to enliven certain scenes and better bring out the emotions of any particular moment, yet sometimes their music almost clashes with the movie's otherwise downbeat sense of atmosphere. Boy Erased is perfectly good when it comes to its overall craftsmanship but, for these reasons, the movie also winds up feeling somewhat stilted in its execution.
Take altogether, though, Boy Erased is a good and respectful big screen take on Conley's real-life story - but at the same time, one that feels important because of its subject matter, more than its quality of filmmaking. Like Beautiful Boy and similar awards season releases this year, it's an inherently difficult and depressing watch, but is certainly worth checking out for its handling of challenging topics and leading performances alone. Fans of Hedges in particular will want to give this Boy Erased a look, before he returns this December with yet another awards contender in the form of his own drug addiction drama, Ben is Back.
Boy Erased is now playing in select U.S. theaters and will expand to additional markets over the weeks ahead. It is 114 minutes long and is rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use.
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- Boy Erased (2018) release date: Nov 02, 2018