Specificity matters. In the case of Boy Erased, the year’s second gay-conversion drama after Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, it invigorates what is otherwise boilerplate Oscar-season fare with the accumulated details of lived experience—that of Garrard Conley, whose memoir of the same name provides the basis for the film. Though adapted and directed by Australian Joel Edgerton, Boy Erased is steeped in the particulars of Conley’s Arkansas upbringing under his Baptist preacher father (played here by Russell Crowe) and supportive mother (a conspicuously wigged Nicole Kidman). An early close-up of a state license plate pointedly sets the stage, reading, “Land of Opportunity.”
Opening under the cover of darkness, Boy Erased picks up with 19-year-old Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, playing Conley’s stand-in) as he’s being driven by his mother to the Memphis chapter of Love In Action (LIA), an “ex-gay Christian ministry” started in 1973. When he gets there, he’s speedily processed: deprived of his personal effects, questioned about their contents, and told that random calls will be made to contacts on his cellphone. What’s supposed to be the start of 12 days of therapy quickly feels like a hellish institutional plunge.
Indeed, Boy Erased initially plays less like a problem picture than a sleek prison drama—all dim claustrophobic interiors, oppressively spartan rooms, and menacing hallways, captured by cinematographer Eduard Grau in deftly choreographed, sinuous oners. That the film dips into genre territory, signaling a possible shift into exploitation, doesn’t gel with its status as an awards-friendly release. But it’s less surprising when one considers that Edgerton made his directing debut with the surprisingly nasty thriller The Gift. Apart from casting himself in the key role of Victor Sykes, the “ex-gay” head of the camp, he presents LIA as an all-too-plausible militaristic nightmare, with absurd drills—handshake lessons, batting practice—designed around retrograde conceptions of heterosexual masculinity. “Fake it till you make it,” says an authoritarian ex-inmate figure (Flea, in the prototypical R. Lee Ermey role from Full Metal Jacket) as he instructs the teens to take a combative stance, then has them ranked according to “manliness.” Horrific as these scenes are, though, Jared soon discovers that it could be just the beginning. Soon enough, a reserved, perpetually wary female attendee disappears from daily therapy, having been shuttled off to a more long-term “solution.”
The public face of Love In Action is not unlike that of a regular church summer camp. And Jared, presumably by force of habit as a preacher’s son, treats it as such, even pinning up the daily schedule at the hotel room he goes back to with his mother each day. But the sense of mounting dread is, for a time, eerily palpable. Of course, there’s no moral ambiguity regarding LIA’s practices, which only become more appalling over the course of the film. (A frightening pray-the-gay-away scene, lit by cultish candlelight, wouldn’t be out of place in an actual horror movie.) So Boy Erased is also something of a dramatically stacked deck. Once the stakes are established, it essentially becomes a waiting game: Will Jared manage to escape before something irreparable comes of the pernicious goings-on?
While a pressure-cooker scenario might have been effective, Boy Erased’s structure—more or less retained from Conley’s memoir—instead incorporates a number of extended flashbacks that cover Jared’s senior year of high school and a brief stint in college, a choice that dissipates the present-tense claustrophobia of the LIA section. Although these sequences fill in the particulars of Jared’s former life, they fail to really define him beyond plot necessity—the film’s major misstep. Largely reactive in nature, Hedges’ role threatens to become the sum of his interactions with the able but distractingly recognizable supporting cast, which includes budding gay pop icon Troye Sivan (who, in collaboration with Sigur Rós’ Jónsi, contributed the original song “Revelation”) and Québécois wunderkind director Xavier Dolan as fellow camp attendees. Crowe and Kidman each get their Oscar-reel moments opposite Hedges in scenes that, rightly, unambiguously demonstrate on whom the burden of change really lies. But Jared’s own interiority feels dispiritingly secondhand.
As recounted in flashback, two significant encounters with boys from Jared’s past—one grim and brutal, the other tender and blissful—offer an opportunity to delve deeper. But given their place in the narrative, these play more like studied rhetorical devices, with destructive, religiously driven self-loathing on one end and non-judgmental, freeing acceptance on the other. This isn’t to say that Boy Erased is uninterested in the exigencies of Jared’s predicament; it’s nothing if not well-meaning in that regard. And after all, the impression of an identity warped and obscured by external forces is true to the film’s evocative title. But a sense of flesh-and-blood being is missing somehow. For all of the effort invested in limning the specific contours of Jared’s struggle, Boy Erased stops just short of its core.