Film review: Boy Erased (Director: Joel Edgerton)
Von Sascha Krieger
When a film opens with amateur footage of a small boy filmed by his family, you know a shattered idyll family drama will follow. Accomplished Australian actor Joel Edgerton chooses this beginning for his directorial debut just like he ends it with another set piece: a young man driving and holding his hand out of the car window – still apparently Hollywood’s go-to image for closing out a coming of age story and symbolising a new, free life beginning. What comes between is, as far as its topic is concerned, less Hollywood standard fare. Boy Erased, based on an autobiographical book by New York writer Garrard Conley leads the viewer into a world far removed from what most of us understand as civilised modern society: gay conversion therapies. Still allowed in more than 30 U. S. states even for minors, young men and women, boys and girls are still subjected to this kind of comprehensive mistreatment, particularly rampant in the so-called Bible Belt, the ultra-religious American south. Boy Erased tells the story of 18-year-old Jared, son of an Arkansas preacher, who after going to college is outed to his parents and persuaded to undergo this kind of pseudo-therapy.
The film follows through the story from the start of „therapy“ to its fall-out and consequences on Jared’s family. Sometimes rather clumsily triggered flashbacks tell the story leading up to this point with Edgerton making too little use of the potential this parallel narration could have to present the gap between life and bigotry, reality and ideology, hope and despair. The two time-frames are neatly separated, showing a first-time director unwilling to take risks and playing it safe. Which isn’t such a bad thing after all as Edgerton focuses on the story he wants to tell rather than the means by which he’s telling it. He chooses a rather darkish palette, symbolising the oppressive narrowness of the world Jared finds himself in. Early on, the film creates some impressive images of isolation, repression and fear, rigid frames of claustrophobic density that are often a little off-center, making use of the off-camera space that stands for the suppressed, that which must not be thought because it cannot be permitted. It’s not surprising that Jared’s first encounter with homosexuality ends in a drastically and at the same time detachedly depicted rape – a free exploration of his blossoming sexual identity is not permitted.
Rising star Lucas Hedges – playing his second gay character after Lady Bird’s Danny – is Jared and gives a convincing, nuanced and subtle performance as a young man who is at first confused and appalled about what’s happening to him and even seems to embrace „therapy“ as a way to make himself „normal“, having internalised his upbringing’s set of values. The shy hopeful smile he displays on day one of the „Love in Action“ programme is perhaps the film’s most haunted image. It visualises the damage an oppressive moral regime can do to a young soul that integrates self-hate, guilt and a sense of not being good and strong enough into his identity, making it its cornerstone, imprisoning himself in the „values“ set by others. Hedges‘ rigid body, shyly cautious face and sad eyes tell a story more intense and existentially deep than the rest of the film can.
For, strangely enough, Boy Erased is at its weakest when it depicts the brutal, destructive and violent identity-killing regime of the „therapy centre“. Here, Edgerton – who plays the „therapist“ himself – finds no visual language beyond dreary AA-style meetings with stale dialogue, some sensationalist pseudo-psychological tricks and confrontations with the three-dimensional value of a cardboard cut-out. Where Jayro Bustamente’s Temblores, which just premiered at this year’s Berlinale, manages to convey the brutality with which a society built on bigotry and intolerance can destroy people by humiliating them into feeling and being regarded as subhuman, Edgerton presents the nonsense of the „therapy“ as part threatening and part ridiculous – and, most damagingly, nothing not to be overcome by a sudden show of rebellion and self-assertion. Which even goes so far as to hint that – if breaking out is so relatively simple – the off-scree suicide of another boy might even be a sign of his weakness, thereby coming dangerously close to the ideology of „strength“ propagated in the centre. The thought system – and the role religion or at least its repressive interpretation plays – behind „leading sinners back on the righteous path“ is only hinted at, here the film just scratches the surface and doesn’t dare go where it hurts. The U.S. are, after all still a country in which religion is idolised – Edgerton almost seems to fear damaging the surface too much.
So where Bustamante paints a shattering portrait of society through an individual’s struggle, Edgerton resorts to the family story which he is more successful at. A cast heavy with Australian’s (YouTuber turned singer Troye Sivan plays another of the centre’s inmates and contributes a song to the soundtrack) is lead – apart from Hedges – by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Jared’s parents. The family dynamics are precisely dissected in carefully observed frames of distance in closeness, claustrophobic rigidness in setting and posture, with Kidman’s character slowly finding her own voice and coming to the help of the son she just betrayed, and Crowe slowly shedding his self-assure preacher mask and finally arriving at a level of torn vulnerability that touches like little else in the film can. The way social „values“ intoxicate the fabric of society’s core unit, the family, is expertly depicted and can be felt, grasped, suffered. Unfortunately, this also narrows the film’s scope, also because it shows an ultimately loving family which can overcome the fight between „belief“ and love – which many families can. Thus, Boy Erased comes a little too close to feel-good territory, dissolves an existential conflict through the love of a family and diminishes the impact the topic should have and the outrage the existence of stories like this in today’s world it should spark. Coupled with a certain insecurity of a first-time director occasionally going for the bland, the relatively harmless film falls way short of where it could – and should – have gone. Thankfully, it still has Lucas Hedges.