“Get angry” is what Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) yells at the members of Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy facility. These aren’t the types of kids to get angry, more used to insular existences, hiding their true nature deep inside. Sykes – the leader of the facility – wants his students to get enraged by who they are, finding blame for their homosexual urges. Surely, there must be some influence in their lives that has turned them away from God, maybe an alcoholic uncle or a cousin with gang affiliations?
Edgerton, as director and writer of Boy Erased, has adapted a muted story that should illicit major emotions, like his Victor Sykes character demands. But in a story that centers around literally pushing down the feelings that cause others to take notice, Boy Erased’s quiet world has a softhearted ambition, but might be too bottled up for its own good.
Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is a 19-year-old who goes to Love in Action after coming out to his Baptist pastor father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Jared has never acted on his homosexual impulses, he knows that he is gay and wants to change this about himself. Jared enrolls in the two week program, where he is asked by Sykes to run down his moral history, dig deep into his family tree for those to blame. With the help of co-counselor Brandon (Flea), he also learns how to stand, sit, and act like a man.
As Jared puts together his moral history, Edgerton’s screenplay shows us his romantic past through flashbacks. Edgerton intercuts this two week period with Jared’s memories with his former girlfriend, Chloe (Madelyn Cline), his brutal college friendship with Henry (Joe Alwyn), and an innocent flirtation with an artist Xavier (Théodore Pellerin). While these flashbacks are integral to understanding Jared, the nonlinear device breaks up the tension at Love in Action almost too much. This is a shame, since that building tension was one of Edgerton’s gifts in his 2015 debut, The Gift. Especially with Xavier’s flashback, it’s hard to even tell where his scenes take place in context to the rest of the film. It’s a decent idea in concept, but doesn’t quite work in execution.
Like the other gay conversion therapy film of 2018, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, it seems as though the film holds back from the real truth. Boy Erased goes farther than Cameron Post ever does, but always hides from the darker possibilities on the fringe. For example, Love in Action has several on-site dorms for people to stay for a year or even longer. Jon (Xavier Dolan) is a current resident of these houses, always appearing at group therapy with some new form of bruise or cut on his face. Boy Erased never points these out, but hints that more horrors are happening at this facility than we are being shown. Even when Edgerton’s camera does take us to these dorms, he takes the audience out before we can see just how far and awful things can actually get.
Unlike Cameron Post, Boy Erased centers on many characters who believe that this therapy is what they need and are intent on curbing their “ungodly” desires. Edgerton’s finest trick with Boy Erased is that even the people who are pro-conversion therapy aren’t entirely villains. While Jared’s parents are clearly in the wrong, they’re sending their son away out of a misguided love and fear for their child and his future. Even Sykes is so ignorantly determined that homosexuality can be cured that it’s hard to completely see him as a legitimately evil character. These are people who have allowed their faith to blindly dictate the awful way they treat the people in their care, and they do it out of compassion rather than malice.
Because of that “hate the sin, love the sinner” mentality, it’s Crowe and Kidman who stand out in this solid ensemble. Crowe is torn between his love for his son, and his moral certainty that he’s actively going against God’s will. Crowe plays this with a silent terror brewing underneath, almost as if he’s mentally trying to work out how he can love both his son and God as the same time, an equation that no longer computes for him. Especially in his tear-filled final scenes, Crowe dominates the emotional heft of Boy Erased almost singlehandedly. Kidman is also fantastic with her desire to help her son, but more open to who her son is becoming. Two standout performance at the facility are Britton Sear as Cameron, a boy who is consistently told he is worthless by his family because of his actions, and Troye Sivan as Gary, who is just trying to fake his change of heart until he can leave Love is Action and continue pretending to be straight. Both Cameron and Gary provide a yin and yang for Jared’s two week stint, and show Jared the paths that his life can potentially go down.
Disappointingly, it’s Hedges who gets lost among this ensemble. Hedges is almost too restrained, and his performance is so internal, it’s hard to pinpoint his feelings until he straight up states his internal monologue. Hedges usually does this type of performance quite well, as he has in Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird and even mid90s, but he doesn’t really let the audience in on what is going on in his head until the story is already on the rails towards its inevitable conclusion.
It’s unfortunate that as the title implies, Hedges’ Jared does get lost in his own story, as supporting characters continuously take the spotlight from him. Despite Edgerton’s screams for emotion, Boy Erased has too soft of a touch to be effective, beyond some excellent performances. And like Jared’s parents, Boy Erased doesn’t quite succeed, even despite the best of intentions.