Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and many other talented stars, “Boy Erased” succeeds as a thriller about gay conversion therapy, but occasionally lacks the poignancy to back it up.
Under the specter of the New York Times report about the United States defining trans lives out of existence, seeing Boy Erased felt more timely than it ever could. With the trans community currently at risk, it is important to look into the other forms of punishment that have been inflicted upon queer people. Because what surprised me most about the film was that the semi-romantic and family-oriented drama we’ve been marketed is far closer to a horror movie than one would believe. Which makes sense, considering the true nature of Boy Erased in both 2004 (when the movie is set) and in 2018, when there are still dozens of states that allow conversion therapy centers to operate.
Based on the memoir of the same name by writer Garrard Conley (who cameos in the film as a conversion center employee), the lightly-fictionalized film follows Jared Eamons, played by the great Lucas Hedges. After being outed to his family following a traumatic experience, Jared is sent to Love In Action, a conversion therapy center run by Victor Sykes, a terrifyingly real Joel Edgerton. There he witnesses and is the subject of emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse under the guise of “fixing” homosexual tendencies. From the opening scene at Love In Action, it is clear that there is no warmth to be found here.
The chilliness of Love In Action is matched by the tone of the film, occasionally to the detriment of the emotional drive of the movie. Many shots of the movie feel as though they could be pulled straight out of a horror movie. That writer-director Edgerton’s only previous film, The Gift, was a thriller itself, and he has borrowed much from the style of it. Edgerton and cinematographer Eduard Grau shoot the film with a deep blue color palette, making even the happier or hopeful scenes anxiety-inducing. What is supposed to be an emotionally cathartic scene late in the film instead feels like the prelude for more trauma Jared would have to face. Flashes of red and purple are made to seem comforting but instead are drowned out by the otherwise dreary visuals. When the film is leaning into horrific imagery—a truly disturbing rape scene remains one of the most striking moments of the movie—it succeeds, but it constantly feels overdone.
The same can be said about the repeated religious imagery, presenting a strange mix of condemnation and embrace of Christianity. The first line Jared says in the movie is “I wish this never happened, but sometimes I thank God that it did.” And while it might be true that Jared continues to embrace God, the film seems to ignore that. From using a bible as a weapon to scenes of yelling at an invisible father framed under a cross, the anger at Christianity (or at least the Eamon family’s strain of it) feels too overt to ignore.
Edgerton’s script has trouble with making scenes set outside of the confines of Love In Action feel essential, and strange pacing of flashbacks and “present day” scenes make little sense. The scenes that require Hedges to break down most happen when he is outside of Love In Action, and he is a strong enough actor to handle it. He is aided most by working off of Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Eamons, who embraces the televangelist’s wife aesthetic she presents. Kidman’s relationship with her on-screen husband Russell Crowe is almost unfair to Crowe, as he is clearly the lesser actor compared to Kidman, though it is hard to blame him for Pastor Eamons’ problems with connection. Hiding emotions is equally key to Crowe’s and Hedges’ performances as it is to Edgerton’s script, but only Lucas Hedges manages to crack the facade successfully. Other actors in the film (particularly Xavier Dolan and Troye Sivan in small roles) are given little to do, but anytime Hedges acts opposite Edgerton or Kidman the raw emotion pulsates.
One could remove 45 minutes of Boy Erased and turn it into a strong enough horror film, but seeing the growth of Jared over the course of the movie is what will keep Boy Erased in my mind for time to come. It and this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post come at a tenuous time in American history, and each of their period settings betrays the still present threat of conversion therapy. For all its myriad flaws, I sincerely hope that Boy Erased finds an audience. Not just because Hedges and Kidman and Edgerton are all very good, nor because it is a strong thriller. Instead, I hope audiences can see that America has historically and presently treated gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, gender nonconforming, asexual and all forms of queer life as destructible. Go to Boy Erased for the Oscar-contending drama, stay for the view of politics in action.
We screened the film at its NewFest premiere at SVA.
Boy Erased will be released on November 2nd in select cities