Initially primed as key awards season bait, Boy Erased comes tiptoeing to UK cinemas with few laurels under its belt. As another broadly appealing gay issue feature, it ticked every box – using a beyond exceptional cast, a skilled director turning his hand to something more serious, a poignant soundtrack – but the end result is a confused hodgepodge. It’s not difficult to see why the Academy averted their eyes with this one.
The crux of Boy Erased is that Jared, played by the exceptional, ubiquitous Lucas Hedges, is a newly-out gay teen banished into conversion therapy by his concerned Bible-basher parents, Marshall and Nancy (played by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman). He’s whisked off daily to absorb the teachings of phoney psychologist Victor Sykes (director Joel Edgerton himself), where he finds his very existence challenged and his future imperilled.
For a film so centred around Jared’s self, you walk out with zero sense of who the character actually is – made doubly insulting by the fact it’s a direct adaption of writer Garrard Conley’s own memoir. Edgerton feels quickly out of his depth here, struggling to characterise Jared beyond easy shorthand like early montages of Jared’s upbringing and adventures with his friends, the camera pausing to absorb Jared stealing a look at another boy while swimming.
But unfortunately, punching adverts featuring male models doesn’t count as sexual confusion or solid characterisation. There’s no attempt to show Jared’s life outside his sexuality in that we don’t know his friends, his school, his interests, and it saddles the typically faultless Lucas Hedges with a thankless role. Without getting to know the boy in Boy Erased the film fundamentally undermines itself. Naturally, we can decry the experience Jared goes through but there’s a total lack of specificity and depth to bring the film to life.
That Boy Erased is brimming with exceptional LGBT+ talent – Cherry Jones in a cameo as a sympathetic doctor, gay wunderkinder Xavier Dolan and Troye Sivan as Jared’s peers – makes its relative placidity all the more galling. The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, a film so similar in theme it’s impossible to avoid comparison, had a raging inferno in its belly, approaching the same topic with the appropriate steel and the benefit of a director closer to the subject matter. Boy Erased feels like specially grown Academy Awards catnip, in which the bare minimum effort is applied despite good intentions all around.
Another creative choice by Edgerton is constructing Jared’s identity as a gay boy (because he is nothing more than this in the two hours Boy Erased clocks in at) around sexual assault and non-encounters. It defuses any early momentum the film builds and is hugely dispiriting to watch. There’s barely a personality to Jared and yet his sexuality is defined entirely by his violent on-screen rape and experience in conversion therapy. A late attempt to balance the scales with boy-on-boy intimacy resorts in literal hand-holding, and for a film that claims to condemn conversion therapy and celebrate Jared’s sexuality, to not show two men kissing goes beyond copping out.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that Nicole Kidman is Boy Erased’s saving grace. Kidman’s acting prowess is well-documented by now but it’s difficult to overstate quite how good she is here. Admittedly, this is the kind of role she could do in her sleep but the actress, in full Tammy Faye Bakker cosplay, is a one-woman powerhouse, finessing Nancy in the few moments she’s afforded and then perfectly pitching the character’s climactic monologue.
When Jared eventually finds some solace and peace in himself it never feels like something that belongs to him, the focus immediately shifting to his parents’ reactions. It’s a PSA for parents yet to accept their gay children masquerading as an empowering drama for LGBT+ people. Boy Erased has noble intentions and most of the tools to pull it off so it’s unfortunate that what we get is a lame duck of a drama that fails to commit to telling a meaningful story about its titular teenager.
Boy Erased is in UK cinemas from 8 February