In discussing Joel Edgerton‘s Boy Erased, it will be nearly impossible to see it ever separated from Desiree Akhavan‘s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Not only do both depict the horrific inner workings of gay conversion therapy, but both even derive their stories from the same real-life camp. The writer of The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s source novel drew inspiration from the events described by Zach Stark at a place known as the “Refuge” in Tennessee. Boy Erased similarly follows events at the “Refuge”, based on the memoir of Garrard Conley. However, the commonalities between the films end here. Edgerton and Akhavan come from entirely different places with completely different missions, and their differing approaches to such grim subject matter largely color the differing execution of their respective stories.
Boy Erased opens as Jared (Lucas Hedges) is sent to the “Refuge”, run by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton). His mom Nancy (Nicole Kidman) drives him there, staying at a nearby hotel while Jared goes to the camp during the day. His father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), remains home as the pastor of their church. In their home in Arkansas, a painting of the three of them next to a cross exemplifies the current strife in their life, finding themselves in conflict. Jared, as a later flashback will reveal, has been having “thoughts” about men. His parents refuse to accept it, turning to older and “wiser” men from the church to help them plot their next move. That move is the “Refuge”, which is practically run like a prison where the young men and women in the program are stripped of all rights, have their personal items searched, and have their entire family/personal history revealed to the counselors and to their fellow campers.
Edgerton’s film is undeniably empathetic and geared towards highlighting the trauma experienced in one of these horrible camps. As with his prior directorial effort, The Gift, Edgerton infuses terror into Boy Erased in demonstrating the way religion is used as a weapon, one intended to break the campers. While some editing and a few scenes feel as though they are influenced by Edgerton’s past working in the horror genre, perhaps no scene captures this feeling better than what happens to Cameron (Britton Sear). Unable to adapt to the camp- the campers learn to “lean into it” or a “fake it till you make it”, whereas Cameron takes neither- he has his family brought in with a mock funeral created for him by Victor. Yelling and shouting ensue as his family beats him with a Bible, trying to exorcise some perceived demon within him. The camera is not quite in a point-of-view shot but is positioned close enough alongside Cameron to stare up in terror at these figures in a low-angle shot as they assault him. As his entire family, even his little sister, get in on the act, Edgerton never wants the audience to look away. This is a film, by his own admission, geared towards parents as a means of dissuading them from sending children to such an inhumane place. In demonstrating the horror so intimately, Edgerton denies the intended audience any kind of emotional barrier from the pain.
In appealing to this audience, Edgerton missteps somewhat in becoming distracted from examining the events at the Refuge. Instead of honing in on the pain experienced by Jared and the other people suffering along with him, Edgerton leaves these scenes a bit undercooked. The people he meets at the camp seem to come and go, all getting in a key scene to assert themselves without much backstory or care given to their journey. Even the death of a fellow camper seems to come and go without much more thought put into it than to show what could have happened to Jared if he stayed. When it comes to Jared, Boy Erased shows his past experiences in a rather fractured, often disjointed series of flashbacks, which similarly emphasizes his suffering. Whether it is an unnecessary rape scene or the self-loathing he feels, Boy Erased positively wallows in suffering and pain. This makes sense to a degree, but Edgerton leaves little room for growth in this area, as by the time Jared is happy and openly gay, Boy Erased is over with very little time left to show his newfound joy. Instead, the storytelling is often distracted. It jumps erratically from the “Refuge” to a flashback to scenes about Jared’s parents coping with his homosexuality, later opting to focus on his parents growth as opposed to his own, to the film’s great detriment.
While this focus may leave the audience desiring a bit more in the way of positivity, Boy Erased does do a more than adequate job of examining the conflict for the parents, as well as society at large. In one exercise at the camp, Sarah (Jesse LaTourette) is tasked with ranking the male campers based upon perceived masculinity. She does so with Victor Sykes watching on, seemingly assessing both her ability as a woman to assess who is manly as well as which boys there actually appear manly to women. The same is tested in a scene in which the male campers try to hit a baseball thrown by an automatic pitcher. Some of the boys struggle, whereas Jared excels, drawing more than a few ooo’s and aah’s from the crowd of onlookers. The forced gender roles, the forced dichotomy between what is “masculine” and what is “feminine”, and the force being given to the boys to become more in line with what a “man” should be like dominate these scenes.
It similarly clouds the perspective of Jared’s parents, seeing the loss of possible grandchildren and having to rectify how their athletic son could somehow, in their obviously limited comprehension of sexuality, be gay. Their struggle is empathetically shown and unexpectedly moving, though Edgerton never loses sight of the fact that they are wrong. It is on them to change, as it is their reductive, selfish, and heteronormative thinking at the root of Jared’s problems, not his sexuality. Balancing this growth with the scenes at the conversion camp do prove to be rather awkward, finding Edgerton frequently shifting the main focus of the film at the drop of a hat, causing it to ultimately play as more focused on the parents than Jared. This shift proves rather unfortunate in its impact on the execution, robbing both sides of the story of much depth and, in turn, much of their power.
No matter how flawed Boy Erased may be throughout, it is elevated by the work of its cast. Lucas Hedges’ powerful and commanding performance as Jared, Nancy’s raw and heartbroken turn as Nancy, and Russell Crowe’s conflicted turn as Marshall are all incredibly impressive. Hedges, in particular, stands out as a young man trying to overcome his religious background while searching for his identity as a gay man. It is a road fraught with peril, but one he must walk and, for a time, by himself. Jared’s isolation and fear are empathetically represented by Hedges while never slipping into false melodrama. Instead, Hedges seems to embody his character and draw from a very raw and authentic source of emotion throughout.
A largely mixed bag, Boy Erased is an often hard to watch and terrifying look at gay conversion therapy and the horrors therein. Director Joel Edgerton tends to get caught up in this element of the film, losing sight of side characters, moments of hope, and even the protagonist’s own story, as it slowly starts to compete with an examination of his parents. This flawed approach leaves Boy Erased as an imperfect film, but a largely satisfactory one that it depicts an unflinching portrayal of conversion therapy while the destruction wrought by prejudice. Featuring terrific performances from Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, and Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased effectively plays its drama even if its story could have been told better.