(Lainey: Nicole Kidman is currently promoting Boy Erased. In a couple of weeks she’ll be promoting Destroyer. Gold Derby just asked her about the possibility of being nominated for both Best Actress and Supporting Actress in the same year - it’s rare, but it’s not impossible…and if there’s anyone who could do it, it would be her. Here’s Sarah’s review of Boy Erased.)
Do you like watching films as if peering through a muddy puddle? Well if so, then Boy Erased is the film for you! Joel Edgerton’s second feature as a director is an adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir of his time in conversion therapy, and it is one of the most brown, drab, indistinguishable films in recent memory. It’s one thing to decide to use a bleak color palette for your film, it’s something else entirely to commit to lighting so poor the audience can’t even discern facial expressions in many scenes. It’s baffling, actually, because Edgerton’s first feature, The Gift, was not lit so poorly as to be noticeable, but Boy Erased is so badly done it affects the quality of the film overall.
Starring Lucas Hedges as “Jared”—going phonetical with Conley’s name for simplicity’s sake, I assume—an eighteen-year-old kid from Arkansas who is committed to conversion therapy after a phone call from a college classmate raises suspicions with this pastor father. Though addressing a different subject, Boy Erased is incredibly similar to Beautiful Boy in structure and tone, so similar, in fact, they could almost be the same movie. Like Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased flashes back through time, though Erased keeps it relatively simple by handling flashbacks in a linear fashion and using them to reveal pieces of Jared’s story as he is forced to regurgitate his experiences in conversion therapy. Also like Beautiful Boy, the main reason to see Erased is the performances, particularly of Hedges and Nicole Kidman as his mother. It’s not that she has a ton to do, but she is Nicole F-cking Kidman so when she gets something to chew on, she makes a meal of it.
Except for the inexplicably bad lighting, Erased is a solid film, and it shows Edgerton’s ability with narrative, and he makes a couple nifty choices that make for nice grace notes late in the film. He also stars as the head of the conversion program, Victor Sykes, and one of those nifty choices is his as an actor, knowing a particular gesture is a clue about the inner life of his character. And Nicole Kidman, starring as Jared’s mother, Nancy, makes the most of her role, too. She has the best scene in the movie, reaching through the too-careful tone with a ferocity that makes the story feel urgent in a way nothing else does. When she panics, YOU panic.
Boy Erased has an issue—besides the lighting, which again is criminally bad—and that is a lack of depth. If you’re already anti-conversion therapy, this will reinforce your position, but otherwise it’s not that much of a statement. It does, however, show how physically and emotionally abusive conversion therapy is, though it’s a shallow portrayal of the inner turmoil exacerbated by the program. Good actors—Hedges, Kidman, Xavier Dolan—uplift the material but there is a distinct lack of exploration that makes the whole thing feel sort of thin and remote. It might be that Edgerton didn’t want to tread into misery porn territory, but there are ways to explore the interior of characters without exploiting them; none of those possibilities are realized.
Boy Erased is a perfectly fine film, horrendous lighting aside, I’m just not sure that “fine” is really what you want from a film about a tremendously damaging practice that continues to hurt people today. Especially given the caliber of actors involved in the film (Russell Crowe pops in as Jared’s oppressive pastor father), Edgerton should have been able to push the story harder and get a deeper, more resonant result. As is, Boy Erased plays it safe, confirming that yes, conversion therapy is bad and harmful, but doesn’t really go any further than that. The result is a poorly lit, just fine film that you won’t remember, especially as it overlaps with Beautiful Boy in a way that guarantees that both films end up a miasma of half-remembered plot points. Including Ben Is Back, I’m halfway convinced these are all the same movie.