The one-sheet for this film perfectly encapsulates its frustrating shortcomings. Across the top, bold caps declare, "A STUNNING ACHIEVEMENT. ONE OF THE YEAR'S BEST PICTURES." Beneath, four stars underscore the proclamation. Finally, three figures fill out the visual field. In the left foreground, a frumpified Nicole Kidman bows her head. Behind her and to the right, Russell Crowe lowers his. Between them, Lucas Hedges stares defiantly into the camera.
One of the most frustrating things about Boy Erased is that it isn't stunning. Between the deeply felt source material and the powerhouse cast, it's easy to imagine it could have been.
The film is based on Garrard Conley's best-selling 2016 memoir, adapted by Joel Edgerton, who also directed and appears in the movie. He clearly had the best intentions — though, just as clearly, he had neither the vision nor the technique required to achieve the best result. "One of the year's best pictures"? More like "one of the year's best pictures about gay conversion therapy." August's The Miseducation of Cameron Post outstunned this one by a mile.
Hedges makes the most of his role as Jared Eamons, a 19-year-old still struggling to break the code of his conflicting desires when circumstances land him in a religious rehabilitation camp. One of those circumstances is being born in Arkansas. The story is set in the early 2000s, but sociologically it's somewhere around 1945.
Another circumstance is having a father who's a Baptist pastor, played by Crowe (hence his bowed head in the poster). Yet another is having a mother who was brought up to believe the menfolk know best and a woman's place is wherever they say it is (hence Kidman's subservient posture). There's also an unsettling event that takes place at college one night and results in a call home from authorities.
It all leads to a confrontation among family members. Jared's parents ask him whether, in his heart, he wants to "do better." He's given two choices: get cured or get shunned. Seriously, these people are so uptight, they make the Amish look like the Saturday crowd at Studio 54.
Numerous reviewers have commended the film for its restraint and avoidance of caricature in its depiction of Jared's parents and the Love in Action camp's repressive regimen. But the movie is lousy with caricatures and clichés.
Crowe's Bible-thumping homophobe and Kidman's Stepford wife are super-familiar stick figures we've seen countless times. In The Stepford Wives remake that Kidman starred in, for example. The facility's quack director, played by Edgerton, is a psychosexual creep straight out of central casting. The scenes set at Love in Action are so by the book that you just assume one of the kids will be abused by a sadistic counselor and another will be so Full Metal Jacketed by the dehumanizing doctrine that he'll off himself by Act 3. And (spoiler alert!) you're not wrong.
That's the movie's most frustrating flaw. Its creators reshape real events to bring attention to a very real problem. But, however well meaning, they reshape those events into a narrative so formulaic that it robs characters of their realness. Viewers might feel they've endured an after-school special with award-season pretensions.
Conversion therapy remains legal in most states. Mike Pence, a heartbeat from the presidency, is an ardent advocate. To filmmakers who'd like to see the practice erased, two words of advice: Do better.