It's that time of year again! 'Tis the season of middlebrow movies made for decent middle-class liberals who want to feel superior to (choose one) [Nazis/slavers/Christian fundamentalists], as well as, to some extent, their victims. Oho! I see you've picked [Christian fundamentalists]! Excellent choice! Here's a dour film that tells you that gay conversion therapy is bad, and, sometimes but not that often, even how and why! (Still, for what it is, it's a qualified success, so let's not be as mean as we could be.)
Written and directed by Joel Edgerton (based on the book by Garrard Conley)
With Lucas Hedges (Jared Eamons) Nicole Kiman (Nancy Eamons), Russell Crowe (Marshall Eamons), and Joel Edgerton (Victor Sykes)
Spoiler alert: N/A
Now, I think we can safely say that Joel Edgerton the actor is good; ever seen Warrior? Hell, he might be great. Based on 2014's The Gift and his newest film, Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton the director is pretty good too, though as a filmmaker whose instincts lead him toward mean-minded thrills, claustrophobic atmosphere, and sleazy sex shocks, he's been somewhat ill-served by a screenwriter who's much more interested in pursuing important themes like the psychosocial consequences of bullying and homophobia, and this screenwriter—Joel Edgerton—has likewise been ill-served in his turn.
This was less apparent, I think, in The Gift, which mostly unified these two impulses (or, depending on your taste, took a thriller and made it gross, or took a drama about bourgeois American entitlement and made it a mess). It's more apparent here, where Edgerton has been hamstrung further by his recourse to the Important True Story, which, as we know, has swallowed up a great many filmmakers more seasoned than either its director or its screenwriter. The good news is that it does not eat either Edgerton alive—nor Edgerton the actor, for that matter, though this was never likely to be the case—and Boy Erased is certainly okay, even though it is, in almost every respect, exactly what you'd expect and no more, and even though it's really only Edgerton the director who puts anything whatsoever into the film that elevates it even slightly above what you'd think it would be.
So the true story we have here is Garrard Conley's recollections of youth, as found in Boy Erased: A Memoir, and my impression is that A Memoir was always far more of a journalistic and ethnographic endeavor than a literary one, which hurts a film that is obliged to narrow its own scope down to a small slice of Conley's own experiences, which are given life in the form of a pseudonymous stand-in named Jared Eamons. Thus, this movie of the book details how "Jared's" sexual confusion in the mid-2000s got him sent off to gay conversion therapy at Love In Action, which did not "cure" him, and which he did not enjoy, though I doubt either fact comes as much of a surprise.
This takes place over 114 minutes, not an unreasonable runtime, but a slightly noticeable one given that only two or three plot points happen within it, and that's including flashbacks. We begin, however, with Jared being dropped off by his mom at Love In Action's front desk for his "evaluation program"; and while no one mentioned it to Jared or his family, it is heavily implied that nobody is released with a clean bill of Christian sexual health after their first two weeks, and that this is at least as much a money-making enterprise as it is a religious calling for Victor Sykes, the stern, bespectacled, poorly-coiffed, and Edgerton-portrayed man of the cloth who runs the place. The program mostly involves Jared and his fellows being yelled at Christianly, and cajoled into confessing their various dalliances, preferably in detail, the significance of this gay conversion therapy program where you narrate prurient tales of gay lust also being something left to implication. Jared eventually rebels against his treatment, which is perhaps technically a spoiler, though it would be more of one if it weren't based on a memoir written by a survivor; and naturally he confronts, in turn, his housewife mother and his pastor father, who have combined with his church to try to crush his spirit.
So, I could've just said "it's a gay conversion therapy movie," which have blossomed like Holocaust films since folks realized that something terrible was happening right here in America and, unlike Holocaust films, those terrible things didn't even cost much money to depict. (Mainly, you need to rent out an empty church, find one of the various states in the South that offer tax credits, and buy a dozen or so white button-up shirts.) The presumptive best is still one of the first (perhaps the very first), Jamie Babbit's 2000 effort But I'm a Cheerleader, which takes on an actual style (I'm told Babbit is a lesbian, but she might make an exception for Tim Burton) and also comprehends that, terribleness aside, this shit is absurd, and almost impossible not to laugh out loud at, deeply and savagely, because it's just so fucking stupid.
Boy Erased is absurd, and of course it knows it, but it does not abide you laughing at it—which is a choice, and a valid one, though one it's hard to persuade an audience to go along with. For one example, take the moment where Sykes, through one of his minions—not an ex-gay but an ex-con, complete with neck tattoos and the emaciated, wiry build of a methamphetamine addict, or even a Red Hot Chili Pepper—defines for these gay teens the meaning of masculinity, topping off the lesson by having a lesbian line up all the boys in rank from most masculine to least, which seems to be flawed on a number of levels, and I think she just did it by height. This is bizarre and this is funny, but this movie is never, ever, you know, ha-ha funny. At least not on purpose. Anyway, I don't think it's supposed to be funny when sultry gay pop star Troye Sivan, who deigned to be in this movie but clearly did not deign to get a haircut, serves as the voice of pragmatism amongst Jared's fellows, insisting he play the part of a straight arrow, just like Troye Sivan's character does.
Then he babbles something about how Slytherin is the best and disapparates right outta there.
It's strange because sometimes it is going for overt jokes—intentional groaners, I guess, like one of the film's very first images, an in-your-face framing of an Arkansas license plate with the state's former statutory nickname, "the land of opportunity," and keeps it on the screen until it's certain even the slowest wit in the audience has calculated this incredible irony (even long enough for the audience to wonder why Jared's mom's driving around in a 21st century vehicle with a license plate from, at the latest, 1996)—but these elicit little, for Boy Erased is washed throughout in abject blue-gray misery, and that's about all it has going for it, or even wants to have going for it. And so it is grittily but tastefully shot by cinematographer Eduard Grau on 35mm using natural light (with what seems like a fast stock that makes it look more like 16mm), and with a non-negligible amount of cinematic flair, at least in terms of camera movement, and with a mindfulness of perspective that winds up restricting itself with laserlike precision onto the two week day program of a single character who doesn't actually seem like he's got a lot going on other than being gay.
And barely: Boy Erased is another one of those movies with gay characters that aren't, and while this is mostly justified by the setting, it's perhaps slightly questionable when those flashbacks start breaking in, and it turns out the gayest thing in the movie, and the impetus for Jared's "treatment," is a rape. (It has another, kinder same-sex experience—an almost startlingly chaste one—though thanks to the screenplay it has a tendency to muddle the hell out of when these disconnected scenes take place in relationship to each other. Regardless, the second one is the cute gay romance I'd rather have seen. It features the all-time champion pickup line: "Do you believe in the Devil? Does he look like me?")
That rape, incidentally, barely even matters; Jared's own conception of masculinity, which almost certainly would include a lot of guilt and shame and self-inflicted culpability for not fighting off his attacker, is subtext that's surprisingly rapidly contradicted by the text. What Boy Erased clearly wants to be is something more complicated than usual: a movie about a kid who's internalized all this noise and wants to pray his gay away, and has to overcome that programming. And it just never really finds that thread, neither in the script nor in the direction, and not really in Lucas Hedges' leading performance—which is, like much of the movie, fine, but is just as constrained by the material, mainly into just vague irritability and sadness. (Though it's fun, for a certain value of fun, to think of this as a sideways sequel to Lady Bird, in which Hedges played the exact same character; in fairness, Boy Erased is a stronger movie than Lady Bird, in that while Boy Erased is at times almost as sloppy as a narrative object, at least it's never out-and-out obnoxious.)
In the end, what Boy Erased gives us is a nearly first-person film without its first-person. It has next to no insight into its protagonist—incredibly, given the protagonist is essentially the author. It has not so much as an attempt at insight into his fellow inmates (they drift in and out without humanity almost like it's a point the movie's making, but if so, it's a somewhat lazy one, because I am tremendously interested in the middle-aged men who've checked in to pray with these innocent teens). It has no significant insight into the process of conversion therapy (interesting things do happen around Jared, but he is, in the end, barely there a week). And it has no insight into anything else at all, except the possibility that evil/misguided people can, with time and with severe enough personal consequences, change very slightly for the better. This we see with our hero's parents, whom we know are supposed to be important and undergoing moral arcs, less because they've been written to be important and undergo moral arcs, and more because they've been cast as such with movie stars, both of whom are good, one of whom resembles his subject, once he's adorned with a fatsuit (Russell Crowe), and one of whom looks like one of the world's most strikingly beautiful women, a fact the movie does nothing with other than clothing her in faintly garish outfits, and therefore allows it to remain permanently distracting (Nicole Kidman).
What redeems it is that Edgerton the director does come alive here and there: while it's easy to mock the movie's miserablist aesthetic, it's frankly pretty good, and serves the story it's telling throughout; I've complained a lot about it, but Boy Erased is never boring. Meanwhile, in certain scenes, it's surprisingly great—even if, given this is Edgerton, whom I truly do believe would rather be making another thriller, these scenes are inevitably the ones that are the most fraught. Edgerton might not care about rape's consequences, but he knows it's a powerful sight, and he films it almost entirely contained within one unblinking, upsetting single take (though this too, being under a blanket, is "tasteful," this almost makes it more horrifying, just obscure thrashing under covers and screaming smothered by a hand). And the finale at Love In Action, despite everything in the text and the metatext of the film militating against any real tension, gives you the sense of danger anyway, with incredibly tight cutting by ace editor Jay Rabinowitz that honestly did get my pulse pounding regardless of what I "knew" about how this was going to end. It's worth mentioning the pensive but omnipresent score by Danni Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, too, which badly wants to do a Clint Mansell and could, indeed, be easily mistaken for him.
It's hard to say how cynical a ploy Boy Erased is. I like to think that Edgerton did it as much because he believed in it as for the hoped-for prestige, even if what he made was safe and nearly-edgeless, altogether ready for middle-class mass consumption. Yet I don't think it'll find an audience that loves it; I think, at best, it will find an audience that agrees with it. But that's always par for the course come November, ain't it?