Sunday 10 February 2019

Boy Erased

Director Joel Edgerton tackles a tricky topic in Boy Erased. Based on the real life memoirs of LGBT activist Garrard Conley, it's a film that commendably faces up to the dangers of religious gay conversion camps in America. But it's so wrapped up in its agenda, that its narrative plods and stumbles.

Lucas Hedges plays the lead Jared, a young man wrestling with his sexuality. His father, Russell Crowe is a pastor and deeply religious; his mother, Nicole Kidman, meekly follows her husband.

When Jared admits to his parents that he's had sexual thoughts about men, they send him to a religious gay conversion camp led by the villainous Victor Sykes (Edgerton). Alongside a group of other men and women, they're subjected to humiliation and religious manipulation. They're forced to relive trauma in front of one another, admit to their shame. And they're told to direct their anger towards their parents, believing that we're not born homosexual, it's a behavioural issue. It is deeply harrowing.

That the film is based on real events makes it all the more poignant. These camps still exist across America and it's undoubtedly Edgerton's agenda to highlight their destructive power. In that sense, Boy Erased is a vital film in the fight for equality and acceptance.

But the narrative falters. Largely, that's because the underwritten Jared is a bland cipher through which we simply witness the horrors in the camp for ourselves. We never truly develop an attachment to him as a character. He's vulnerable, but barely do we see him actually struggling with his sexuality or his loneliness. Two flashback scenes lurch to two extremes - a troubling attempted rape and a tender moment of sweet innocence - but it's not enough. He's left to merely wrestle with the morality of his situation, which is somewhat a given.

Instead, the emphasis is less on self-discovery and more about the horrendous experience he's forced to endure by his parents. It's they who have the more interesting narrative arc. Do they deserve his forgiveness? Can they be redeemed? There's an issue with casting here too: Hedges may get the most screen time, but for emotional power it's hard to compete with the star power of Kidman and Crowe. Musicians Flea and Troye Sivan also pop up in the peripheral cast.

The washed out and dreary visuals may suit the downbeat tone of the film, but it's all a bit one-note and falls flat. Where emotional resonance is required, Boy Erased feels too cold and muted to make enough of an impact.


Watch: Boy Erased is out now.