By Jack Dignan
There are some movies that are sadder than they are enjoyable. You appreciate them, and they often evoke something deep inside of you, but you can’t necessarily say you liked watching it. It didn’t connect with you. For me, Boy Erased is one of those films. This is, for the most part, a good movie. It’s vital, well constructed and very emotional, but, unlike The Miseducation of Cameron Post earlier this year, which delves into very similar subject matter, I never once found myself going “wow.”
Gay conversion camps are bullshit. There’s no other way of putting it. They’re dark and sickening means of assaulting young men and women over a sexuality they can’t control, exploiting their insecurities and shaming them for the way they want to live their life. Joel Edgerton’s second feature film, Boy Erased, tackles this subject matter head on. It’s confronting and, often, brutal, while being constantly grained in truth. Its fact-based story is a little more grounded in reality than Cameron Post was, although it’s become clear that there’s two very different ways of telling this same story, and they certainly don’t have the same effect.
Lucas Hedges takes on the lead role of Jared, who, for whatever reason, gets a slight spelling adjustment in comparison to the real life man, who also authored the biography this film is based on, Garred Conley. After starring in recent awards darlings such as Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and his Oscar nominated role in Manchester by the Sea, Hedges returns to the big screen with a powerful and raw performance of a kid forced into gay conversion camp after coming out to his very religious parents, played by Australian favourites Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.
Hedges carries this film on his shoulders all the way to the shocking closing title cards, which puts into perspective a more modern take on this early 2000s-based story. It’s a defining performance for Hedges. His relationship with Crowe leads to a series of hard-hitting confrontations, where emotion is high but investment is low. It all feels very familiar and rather manipulative, never exploring its subject matter beyond what’s on the surface. Some third act resolutions come with little justification; all for the sake of making this film more of a tearjerker than it was already. His dynamic with Kidman provides a better glimpse of how talented these actors are, but sadly, that too feels quite shallow.
Edgerton’s script, which cuts back between the camp and Jared’s life beforehand, doesn’t flow as well as it could. There are so many great moments throughout, burdened by a rocky narrative that feels more like a pressing PSA than anything else, which is a similar problem that the other TIFF “Boy” film, Beautiful Boy, faces as well. Neither is fantastic enough to warrant praise, but they’re not inept enough to warrant a belittling reception. Joel Edgerton’s directorial effort is wonderful, however he’s in dire need of a better script to work with.
I admire his efforts to confront and challenge what needs to be an outdated belief, all while taking on the roles of writer/director/supporting actor (the latter of which he excels at), but a series of good performances, including brief appearances from a supporting cast that includes Troye Sivan (who also provides some fantastic original songs) and Xavier Dolan, isn’t enough to warrant this as anything special. It’s fine. It’s certainly good. But it’s sadder and more harrowing than it is rewarding or entertaining. And, while not technically this film’s fault, I’ve literally seen a version of this plot beat for pleat beat earlier in the year.
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