“Boy Erased” is a dull examination of tragic circumstances: The talented cast can only do so much to breathe energy into an otherwise lifeless film.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, the film follows Jared, played by Lucas Hedges, the 19-year-old son of a Baptist minister who is forced to undergo gay conversion therapy after being unwittingly outed to his parents.
The lack of any sense of direction proves to be the film’s biggest weakness. Actor Joel Edgerton wrote and directed “Boy Erased” and seems comfortable allowing the story to sit in its somber tone without any real movement.
While narratives like those discussed in “Boy Erased” need to be told, the film deserved a more capable director and writer to do such an important and sensitive topic justice.
Without a clear through line, the focus of the film is awkwardly split between two competing narrative threads of Jared and his parents, which do not cohere as well as they should.
Ostensibly, “Boy Erased” is about Conley’s experience in conversion therapy and the associated trauma. Yet only about a third of the film’s nearly two-hour run time is dedicated to the main storyline. Rather, the bulk of the movie focuses on the effect of Jared’s outing on his conservative, southern Baptist family.
While either plotline could have made a compelling film, the split focus prevents the story from exploring either in any satisfying way. Instead, the film just scrapes the surface of both competing plot threads.
“Boy Erased” manages to make complicated and interesting topics feel dull. Edgerton treats everything he touches with kid gloves, failing to delve deeply into any storyline.
Eduard Grau’s cinematography only exacerbates the banality of the film by using a muted color palate and dark, unsaturated coloring. While the color manipulation is meant to stress the protagonist’s pain, the visually uninteresting and one-note choice falls flat.
Restricted to stilted dialogue and monologues that could be taken directly from after-school specials or public service announcements, the characters often speak in a heightened manner that rings false, particularly when dealing with the film’s messages. While no film’s dialogue is entirely representative of actual human conversation, Edgerton’s script is distractingly unrealistic and untrue.
However, Hedges shines in the lead role as Jared. He exudes a sensitivity and earnestness that draw viewers in, making him the perfect choice for the character. His character’s anguish is clearly displayed in Hedges’ expressive face. Through his expressiveness, he gets the audience to follow Jared’s complex inner life without the need for words. His acting choices never come across as performative or false.
Unfortunately, though Jared is the central focus of the narrative, Edgerton does not give him enough to do. More often than not, he is a passive participant in his own story, only reacting to the horrors around him. While there are some moments of incredible power, including a flashback to an innocent night in bed platonically with a boy from university and his confrontation with the head of the conversion therapy program, these scenes are few and far between.
In their roles as Jared’s parents, Nancy and Marshall, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe garner varying degrees of sympathy. The film makes it clear that they are both trying, in their own misguided ways, to do what is best for their son, whom they love.
Kidman plays the more overtly sympathetic role, emphasized by various monologues expressing Nancy’s love for her son and desire to protect him.
Crowe is saddled with a tougher task. Where a lesser actor would have reduced his character to a hateful, Bible-quoting stereotype, Crowe infuses Marshall with humanity and a genuine belief that he is doing what needs to be done to save his son. His redeeming moment feels well-earned and strikes one of the stronger emotional chords in the film.
Impressively, the film does not take the bait of outright vilifying the parents or bashing Christianity. Rather, Edgerton’s script takes a more nuanced approach in assessing its characters and their motives.
While the film’s strong performances — led by the talented Lucas Hedges — are exciting to witness, “Boy Erased” is a flat look at a tragic situation. Lacking a unified narrative, the film meanders lifelessly. Only a few moments of great strength temporarily show viewers of the film’s potential for better direction.
Under a more seasoned director or writer, “Boy Erased” could have been a hard-hitting, standout drama. However, as it stands now, the film does not deserve the great performances by its leads.