Boy Erased has all of the ingredients of a Best Picture Oscar winner, including three of the most devastating performances to this year grace the screen. What it ultimately lacks, holding it back from reaching masterpiece territory, is the right filmmaker to get it across the finish line.
This isn’t to completely lambaste the picture’s writer-director-actor-producer Joel Edgerton, who in the past has proven himself a marvelous talent both in front of (in It Comes at Night and Loving, among others) and behind (with The Gift) the camera. Edgerton here delivers a very fine film, albeit a frustratingly workmanlike effort that leans heavily on its actors and source material. It’s an endeavor that finds Edgerton an immense talent at getting the best out of his actors, while sporting very little visual flair himself as a filmmaker.
The film, based on Garrard Conley’s eponymous 2016 memoir, follows Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, yet again proving himself one of today’s finest young actors), the son of Baptist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman), who, upon revealing his homosexuality to them, reluctantly agrees to enroll in a gay conversion therapy camp. There, Jared befriends other participants, each struggling to navigate and survive their way through this hellish experience. The program is spearheaded by “therapist” Victor Sykes (Edgerton), whose conversion methods are equal parts manipulative, traumatizing and sadistic.
Boy Erased is at its most compelling when focused on the family dynamic, with Hedges, Crowe and Kidman having an absorbing, all too convincing rapport that often rings of Ordinary People. Each actor is turning in some of their very best work, perhaps Crowe in particular, who absolutely kills it in his final scene toward the picture’s end. There’s also a terrific cameo from the always fabulous Cherry Jones, portraying the family physician, none too sold on Jared entering the program.
Less stirring are the camp scenes, with Edgerton too muted as the ringleader to pack the necessary punch. There are, however, very affecting scenes around the lead-up to Jared’s coming-out, including a shattering sequence involving classmate Henry (Joe Alwyn). Constantly jumping back and forth between past and present, and compellingly so, Edgerton’s screenplay is a greater success than his direction, which veers from the uninspired to the heavy-handed.
My qualms with some of Edgerton’s contributions aside, Boy Erased remains a mostly riveting production, with its trio of stars in pitch-perfect form. I just wish I could give the film these masterful performances grace a tad higher grade than…