The well-meaning drama “Boy Erased,” based on Garrard Conley’s memoir about his experiences in a gay conversion therapy program, is a TV movie-of-the-week dressed up as Oscar bait. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, the film is geared largely toward heterosexuals unfamiliar with the insidious practice.
At the start of “Boy Erased,” Jared (Lucas Hedges) is being taken to a daily refuge program run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton) to “assess” and “cure” him of his homosexuality. Jared’s parents, Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist preacher, and Nancy (Nicole Kidman), a bleach-blonde Southern belle, have decided this treatment is the best — if not only — option for their son.
However, as a series of extended flashbacks show, Jared is not guilty of sexual sin — as Sykes and his parents believe — rather, the totality of his sin is desire. Though he does “think about men,” he does very little in the way of acting on his same-sex attractions. Oddly, Jared presents himself more as bi-curious than gay, as if Edgerton wants to make “Boy Erased” palatable to the very audience — straight parents — that needs to hear the message.
And the message is important. The horrors of conversion therapy are well documented, yet statistics in the film’s end credits indicate that 36 states still allow gay conversion therapy among minors and 700,000 LGBTQ people have been subjected to it. Edgerton, however, cudgels viewers with a slow-motion sequence in which one of the boys in the program is beaten repeatedly by family members and others as if to knock the gay out of him. It’s a heavy-handed scene in a film that often lacks nuance.
Many characters in “Boy Erased” try to “pray the gay away,” and there are discussions about behavior and choice — debating if LGBTQ folks are “born this way” or “choose” to engage in queer activities. A preachy comment about being born a football player tries to defend the therapy program’s approach, but a better sequence, in which Jared visits a doctor (out lesbian actor Cherry Jones), who discusses science, God, and free choice, shows that there can be clearer thinking on homosexuality and faith.
Other comments by Sykes and the teens address what it means to be a “real man,” “faking it until you make it,” and “becoming the man you are not” — all core notions among folks who believe in conversion therapy. But a manipulative scene of Sykes bullying the teens is cringe-inducing for all the wrong reasons. Viewers are supposed to feel pity for the youth, but the characters are too one-dimensional to carry off the moment. Several of the youth aren’t fully formed, distinguished more by their hair color or body type than any other characteristic.
In cataloging the “moral inventory” required by the program, Jared reflects back on his relationships with Henry (Joe Alwyn) and Xavier (Théodore Pellerin), which are, respectively, tough and tender. The encounters seem important, but we’re given too little in the way of Jared’s feelings about them. Hedges’ performance never makes Jared’s internal struggle feel real. He plays Jared’s emotional turmoil with simply a perpetually troubled look on his face. The boy being “erased” is never fully sketched out in the first place.
What the film does best is to focus on the parents and their role in Jared’s situation. Nancy talks about “hurting to help,” telling her son that “parents want to protect their kids,” but it is not until she senses Jared is in danger that she begins to change, shifting into ferocious Mamma Grizzly mode. Kidman is less successful than Crowe in silently conveying the internal conflict these parents feel. His awkward conversations with Jared give the film ts few moments of juicy dramatic tension. In support, Edgerton plays Victor Sykes broadly, like a cartoon villain.
“Boy Erased” is a clunky redemption tale that tries too hard to be crowd-pleasing and as a result glosses over the issues at stake, particularly for the vulnerable teens who suffer at quack science’s hands.
BOY ERASED | Directed by Joel Edgerton | Focus Features | Opens Nov. 2 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston at Mercer St.; angelikafilmcenter.com/nyc | AMC Loews Lincoln Square, 1998 Broadway at W. 68th St.; amctheatres.com