The aesthetic of Boy Erased is aggressively drab, and deliberately so. Joel Edgerton’s new film takes place in a world drained of passion and life: a gay “conversion therapy” program that emphasizes negativity and forced reserve. But that intentionality doesn’t make the movie any less exhausting a viewing experience. Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, Boy Erased is a methodical work that tries to account for the horrors of religious conversion camps as soberly as possible—but unfortunately to the point where soberness edges into blandness.
The names in Conley’s memoir have been changed, though this is an otherwise straightforward adaptation by Edgerton, who wrote and directed, and who plays the supporting role of Victor Sykes, the program’s head therapist. Set in the early 2000s, the movie follows Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the son of Baptist pastor Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman), as he enrolls in a two-week intensive program designed to purge him of homosexual impulses. At age 19, he’s been cruelly outed to his parents while still reckoning with his sexuality; his father sends him to Sykes’s camp partly to preserve the family’s reputation at church.
Edgerton’s directorial debut, 2015’s The Gift, was a welcome surprise from the Australian actor, a nasty little thriller that boasted searing performances from stars Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (and an unfortunately gross ending). Boy Erased is a more mature work, but as a result, it’s restrained almost to a fault. Edgerton never lets the film burrow into Jared’s personhood. Hedges plays the teen as a quiet and confused boy, still roiled by his conservative upbringing and only somewhat willing to admit his own burgeoning desires.