2018-12-06 / Around Town

Well-Meaning ‘Boy Erased’ Falls Flat

FILM REVIEW
By Loren King


The´odore Pellerin as Xavier and Lucas Hedges as Jared in “Boy Erased,” opening at the Jane Pickens Theater. The´odore Pellerin as Xavier and Lucas Hedges as Jared in “Boy Erased,” opening at the Jane Pickens Theater. Writer Garrard Conley turned his experience with conversion therapy as a young gay man in Arkansas into his 2016 memoir “Boy Erased.” It’s easy to see why such an unusual and traumatic experience would intrigue director Joel Edgerton. Though best known as an actor, he wrote and directed the psychological thriller “The Gift” (2015) and brings some of that nerve-wracking horror to this film.

Lucas Hedges plays Jared Eamons, a small-town Arkansas teenager wrestling with his sexuality. His situation is complicated by his strict but not unkind Baptist pastor father (Russell Crowe) and devout mother (Nicole Kidman), whose religious beliefs are strongly anti gay.

Shortly after moving into his college dorm, Jared is sexually assaulted by a closeted student he’d befriended, who then outs Jared to his parents. Although Jared has a brief but positive relationship with an artist, Xavier (Theodore Pellerin), he’s rattled, confused and bows to pressure from his father to undergo conversion therapy at a fundamentalist center called Love In Action.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Edgerton cast himself as the sinister evangelical zealot Mr. Sykes, who runs the center with tactics that include beatings and berating these paying young people to declare themselves sinners. These over-the-top monstrous scenes, which include Sykes’s staging a bizarre mock funeral for one of the young men in his care, are appropriately disturbing but never go much deeper.

A brutal former convict (played by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) is so obsessed with ridiculing anything he thinks resembles femininity that it exposes the underlying misogyny of the program and the mentality behind it. But this isn’t explored beyond the obvious. One can imagine a real horror movie set in a place like this, or a comedy which was done, and done well, with 1999’s “But I’m a Cheerleader.”

“Boy Erased” takes the earnest approach to its heightened material and the result is tepid drama. The only thing the audience can root for is that Jared escapes with his life, sanity and self-respect intact. It’s not giving anything away to say that he does, just as writer Conley did, and comes to terms with himself and his parents. But the aftermath unfolds in cliched problem-movie fashion.

“Boy Erased” feels more an attempt to educate than to deliver an authentic emotional experience. The end titles explain that although discredited by mental health organizations worldwide, conversion therapy is still legal in 41 U.S. states. The titles also reveal what happened to Sykes, and it says a lot about the film that this information turns out to be the most interesting, yet unexplored, thing about him.

Another film this year, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” directed by Desiree Akhavan and based on a young-adult novel by Emily Danforth, starred Chloe Grace Moretz as the rebellious teen dispatched to “pray the gay away.” This movie also exposed the insidiousness of conversion programs but with more originality and humor, which gave the movie a contemporary, charged feel. Part of the reason was that it was told from the viewpoint of teenager Cameron, who bonds with other outcasts in the group and cleverly figures out ways to deal with their trapped-in-the-snake-pit situation.

“Boy Erased,” particularly due to the sympathetic performances from Crowe and, especially, Kidman as a mother whose love for her son means more to her than anything else, works best as a cautionary tale for parents. Much like the recent “Beautiful Boy,” which showed how a child’s drug addiction torments his loving parents, “Boy Erased” has good intentions and a bland social message. Its goal may be admirable, but it doesn’t make for affecting or memorable drama.

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