Empathy, combined with a noble purpose, doesn’t always make for exciting fiction. Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased has an anguished young man in his prime at the centre of its narrative, adapted from a memoir by Garrard Conely, an American LGBTQ author and activist. In his adaptation, Edgerton crafts some moments of wrenching cruelty, but it is less about a man than about empathy for a cause – to expose the injustice and brutality implicit in the workings of a religion-sanctioned gay conversion facility. The Baptist parents of a sensitive, creative man coming to terms with his own sexuality send him such a facility. The 154-minute film builds up, scene after laborious scene of noble intent, to a cathartic climax.
Jared (Lucas Hedges) is a college-going boy in Arkansas who writes stories in his spare time. His father Marshall (Russell Crowe) owns a car showroom and is a preacher at a local church. His mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is the good American wife – polished and without much power over the what her husband decides for the family.
When it is discovered that Jared has had a homosexual encounter in his college dorm and that he is gay, the parents are shattered. On the advice of the community church’s leading preachers, they send Jared to an insular facility in which LGBTQ men and women are sent for long periods of time to be “corrected”. Joel Edgerton plays the role of the facility’s head, who uses “moral inventories” to methodically drill into the members that they are fundamentally anti-Christ and wrong. Jared has to confront the life-changing responsibility of either going by what his father wants or stay true to who he is.
It is a chronological story, told without much frills and enough technical competence, and with an unflinching moral centre. There are no surprises since the film is essentially a journalistic expose of what it is like to be in a gay conversion facility. Even with some attempts to humanise Jared’s father Marshall, there are no shades of ambivalence in any of the characters. Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman have to work with one-dimensional arcs, but they manage to draw out some moments of genuine pathos.
Lucas Hedges plays the part of the protagonist with immersiveness, and his Jared is the only character with enough emotional grist. Viktor Sykes, the role played by Edgerton, could have been much more layered, but falls flat as the film progresses, with representational broad strokes rather than a human study of what minds colonised by religious institutions struggle with.
Boy Erased is a significant contribution to the body of American work on the need for inclusion and LGBTQ rights – and not the moral thriller it could also have been.