Dramas about homosexuality can be hard to conceive, as it is easy to fall into pitying the protagonist(s), this especially can happen when the filmmaker is straight. However, Joel Edgerton has proved that he has a gentle touch as an auteur, achieving the careful balance required to bring about a realistic and humanizing drama about homosexual conversion therapy.
Boy Erased is loosely based on a true story; we follow Jared (Lucas Hedges) an eighteen-year-old boy living in Arkansas. He’s the son of the town preacher (Russell Crowe), but when his parents (his mother played by Nicole Kidman) find out he’s gay, he gets sent to gay conversion therapy; a practice that unfortunately is still legal today in nearly three quarters of the states of the US.
This is Edgerton’s second film as a director; his first was the gripping 2015 thriller The Gift and this follow-up was a bit of a departure and challenge for the Australian filmmaker. As mentioned before, however, Edgerton is able to achieve a delicate balance by giving Jared a very smooth arc as he descends into getting to know himself. At the beginning of the movie Jared seems to be a blank piece of clay that can be easily molded by anything, getting easily pushed around by what authority figures think he ought to do, but by the end of the film he’s able to find a comfortable zone on his own. The journey is smoothly and meticulously brought out, but unfortunately the choice of mixing up the chronology of the story with some hazy editing jumbled the internal logic of Jared’s arc. Jared changes for us viewers during the course of the runtime, but that would mean that in the diegetic world of the film he’s fluctuating all over the place.
Edgerton seems focused on trying to find understanding with all sides of this film’s topic. Be that the conservative parents, the frightened kids, or the progressive doctors. The underlying message that Edgerton does give us is that education is key for tolerance. In the first half of the film, the only person who tells Jared that nothing might be wrong with him is a doctor. While at conversion therapy the organization in charge tries to encourage Jared to drop out of college and stay permanently to absorb the religious doctrine being preached there. But Edgerton seeks to point out that religion is not the enemy either, and is simply a tool for the intolerant. He fails to convince on the matter; all religious figures end up being the “villains,” while the comforting people are those that stop going to church and go against the biblical rules.
The story is specifically of Jared’s journey, and Edgerton is able to zero in on that and flesh out the protagonist, but the result is that the peripheral characters are left largely ignored. The script leaves the supporting characters as more or less caricatures; some actors are able to spin some life into their roles regardless (like the fabulous Kidman), but others suffer heavily (like Crowe and Edgerton himself who plays the conversion therapy leader). These underwritten supporting characters lead to their relationships formed with Jared to have less weight and thus some of the finale’s aimed emotional punches to miss.
Lucas Hedges is able to lead this film, however. In a short while in Hollywood, the twenty-one year old has been able to show that he is a talented actor able to shine both in intense roles as well as quiet ones. Boy Erased falls on the quieter side, with Hedges giving his character and the film a subtle emotional weight. In the end, it’s his performance along with the concentrated attention to his character that is able to provide a lift for the story and its message.
Jared’s story is told with care and sentiment; however, confusing editing choices along with underwritten supporting characters bog down an otherwise heartfelt and effective sophomore outing for director Edgerton.