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Non-Review Review: Boy Erased

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Boy Erased is the amount of faith that writer and director (and supporting actor) Joel Edgerton puts in the material at hand.

Boy Erased is based on a memoir written by Garrard Conley, offering a fictionalised account of the writer’s time in gay conversion therapy in rural conservative America. The film is fiction to the extent that the names have been changed; Garrard Conley becomes Jared Eamons. However, Boy Erased never tries to disguise its influences or to assert ownership of the story. The end of the film includes pictures of the real-life inspirations for various characters, often illustrating how uncanny the film’s casting had been.

Bedfellows.

More than that, perhaps as a nod to the increased self-awareness within these sorts of stories, the film hints at its own fictionalisation. The article and book that Jared decides to write towards the end of Boy Erased is very plainly the basis of the film that audience is watching. There is something intriguing in that, in the way that Boy Erased folds itself into its own narrative. The ending of Boy Erased is rooted in the characters responding to the story that Jared has written of his experiences, a clever and reflexive narrative choice that is consciously (and shrewdly) underplayed.

However, the fact that this is the closest that Boy Erased comes to a subversive or deconstructive moment only underscores the matter-of-factness with which Edgerton’s handled the material. Outside of using the origins of the film to provide the basis for a third-act catharsis within the film, Edgerton takes a very straightforward approach to this story. He never seems particularly interested in bending the narrative out of shape or of heightening particular elements for dramatic tension.

Syke out.

In its own weird way, Boy Erased feels decidedly conservative for a contemporary awards film. It is much less energised or dynamic than other similar works, such as the addiction drama Beautiful Boy starring Lucas Hedges’ Lady Bird co-star Timothée Chalamet. This creative restraint is not a criticism in any way; quite the opposite. Edgerton trusts the story that he has been given, and trusts his cast to deliver. Boy Erased is not a showy or ostentatious piece of work, instead a film constructed to specification with care and craft.

Boy Erased is a film that exists primarily as a vehicle for its subject and for its cast, and that is a credit to Edgerton’s approach to the material.

They said that he needed this, but it couldn’t be father from the truth.

Conversion therapy is still widespread in the United States, even after the country legalised same sex marriage and even as cultural mores seem to be (slowly) accepting that homosexuality is just as valid a sexual orientation as heterosexuality. It is a horrific system, and it is no surprise that it has become an object of fascination in contemporary cinema. The Miseducation of Cameron Post tackled the subject earlier in the year, starring Chloë Grace Moretz. As the closing text in Boy Erased explains, these sorts of operations are still far too common.

Boy Erased is very consciously grounded in its portrayal of the organisations that provide such services and the families who submit to them. Edgerton treats his exploration of the industry as something approaching a procedural, slowly building a sense of unease about the organisation as tension mounts. There are times when Edgerton directs Boy Erased as a companion piece to his underrated directorial debut, The Gift. Edgerton continuous rachets up the tension over the course of the film, creating a mounting and palpable sense of dread.

Who are we Kidmanning?

If Boy Erased is a horror film, it is a particularly mundane brand of horror. Boy Erased is fascinating by the routine of these organisations, of the ways in which they operate. It is clear from the outset that these organisations are designed to protect themselves. “No journals,” Jared is bluntly informed when his notebook is confiscated on entering the facility. The administrator of the program, Victor Sykes, sternly warns the teenagers in his care, “Nobody is to discuss the therapy outside these walls. Do I make myself clear?”

Whatever justifications the organisation might offer for these decisions, the real reasons quickly become apparent. Sykes and his colleagues bully and harass the young people entrusted to them. One regular exercise is an attempt to stoke up tension between these children and their parents, to deepen (and even create) wounds that might later be exploited. Another part of the routine involves documenting past sins; written and taped confessions of perceived indiscretions that ultimately end up in the hands of Sykes himself.

Getting all revved up.

For better and worse, Boy Erased is disinterested in the idea of blaming religious belief of itself for homophobic prejudice and the ubiquity of this grim industry. Instead, in its most canny moments, Boy Erased suggests that Victor Sykes is ultimately just an entrepreneur operating an elaborate con that stokes and exploits parental fears. Sykes has found something that already has buy-in from a conservative and panicked population. Indeed, one of the most depressing realities of this sort of story is how many of the young people enrolled want to be converted.

Boy Erased suggests that these conversion organisations are widespread simply because there is money involved. An early argument with a frustrated parent in the car park is barely overheard, but the context of the conversation is clear. “We’re not running a charity here!” Sykes yells. When Jared wonders about how long the conversion process will take, Sykes suggests that the young man might want to give up on any plans of returning to college. “A year with us might be a much better use of your time.”

Family misfortune.

In fact, this intertwining of faith and consumerism is suggested by Jared’s father. Marshall Eamons is the minister for a local congregation; Jared attends his church on a regular basis. However, Marshall also operates the local car dealership. It is very revealing in the context of Boy Erased that so many of the important conversations between Jared and Marshall are contextualised in terms of the car dealership rather than in terms of religion; Marshall giving his son car keys for a date, the important cathartic conversation between the two. Capitalism wins out.

There is something appropriately clinical and rigourous in Edgerton’s study of the organisation, which is ironic considering how unprofessional and unqualified people like Sykes are. There are times when Boy Erased feels too detached from the horror that it is depicting, but there is a clear purpose to this. Edgerton is fascinated by the mechanics of these institutions, the processes by which they work; the inputs and the outputs. Edgerton treats the conversion therapy industry as any other, which only amplifies the horror of what it does.

Jared’s game.

Boy Erased largely avoids unnecessary spectacle or excess in its portrayal of conversion therapy. Tellingly, one of the most tragic events of the story unfolds off-screen. Edgerton makes a conscious choice to avoid sensationalism in terms of his portrayal of these organisations and their conduct towards the young people placed in their care. (Boy Erased tackles its subject matter in a markedly less heightened manner than, say, Beautiful Boy.) After all, the realities presented in Boy Erased are stark enough. The violence is just as unsettling for being present as matter-of-fact.

Edgerton also cannily trusts his cast to carry the film in places, offering an approach that seems designed to avoid getting in the way of performers like Lucas Hedges or Nicole Kidman or Russell Crowe. Hedges is one of the strongest actors of his generation, having made a phenomenal impression in films like Manchester By the Sea or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Kidman does excellent work in the role of a woman who finds herself torn between her faith and the love of her son.

Not quite dealing with it.

That said, Boy Erased does brush up against the archetypal nature of the story that is being told. Edgerton’s conscious choice to downplay so much of the film means that Boy Erased occasionally feels overly formulaic. Its trajectory is quite clear from the opening minutes, its character arcs heavily signposted. Although based on a true story, a lot of the character development is very much in keeping with that expected from an issue-driven prestige film, particularly the manner in which Boy Erased develops Jared’s relationship with his parents.

There are occasional complications or finer details along the way, small touches that add a wrinkle or complication to the familiar arc of stories like this. In particular, the nature of Jared’s first homosexual experience is discomforting and unsettling, in a way that very consciously (and very fairly) catches the audience off-guard. It is a strange choice, one that does not necessarily fit with the story that Boy Erased is trying to tell. In its own way, this makes the story strangely compelling.

The mother of all problems.

Edgerton is careful to avoid playing too strongly into the unfortunate implications of that sequence, but it is a very fine line. These sorts of little choices along the way serve to add texture and detail to a narrative that would otherwise seem very archetypal, so it is interesting to unpack them. Life is full of complications and contradictions, but those complications and contradictions do not always map cleanly to narrative of films. As with the ending of The Gift, it is a decision that seems likely to polarise audiences and spark very heated discussion about the film.

That said, the larger arc of Boy Erased moves exactly as the audience might expect. This, coupled with Edgerton’s consciously low-key approach to the material, does diminish the impact of Boy Erased. This is a very timely story, told in a very insightful and intelligent way, with two great central performances. However, outside of a very genuinely provocative choices and moments, it feels largely inert. It is an interesting central tension, and one that results from strong and well-intentioned creative instincts.

Boy Erased is smart and well observed. Unfortunately, it is not consistently engaging.

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