Every now and then we get one of those little mini-cycles of movies that are in no way actually related, but somehow end up occupying the same exact spot in your brain. For me, at least, we have one of those going on right now, with a pair of movies, each with the word "Boy" in the title, each starring a Hot It Boy Who Was In Lady Bird, each a very sober-minded message movie. Both movies are based on memoirs, which explains why both feel so shapeless and anti-dramatic, and it does make me feel guilty to say that two real lives are inherently boring, but sometimes life just isn't the stuff of narrative - both compound this with some very arbitrary, badly welded-in flashbacks. Both are talking directly at an audience that will walk into the movie already agreeing with every point the filmmakers intend to make, and everybody involved on both sides of the screen is really just there to have their pre-existing morality reaffirmed. Insofar as either film is intellectually meaningful at all, it's almost entirely at the level of the question, "What would you do if it was YOUR son?", which barely passes muster as one of those "for further discussion" prompts at the end of a book club edition of a novel, let alone as the stuff of genuinely decent art. Both movies, in short, are mediocre sacks of crap built to win Oscars and be patted on the head for being Very Good, and the only good news is that a year from now, nobody will remember that either one exists.

In a pinch, I'd say that Boy Erased (the one about "pray the gay away" Christian "therapy" programs, starring Lucas Hedges) is still a decent bit better than Beautiful Boy (the one about drug addiction, starring Timothรฉe Chalamet).* It has substantially better acting across the board, and a much less sloppy relationship to its characters; it also lacks any single aesthetic misstep as inexplicable as Beautiful Boy's unrelentingly bad soundtrack choices. On the other hand, Boy Erased does an even worse job of motivating its flashbacks. The point being: Oscarbait message movies are the absolute fucking worst, and that is an immutable constant that has existed for as long as the Oscars have.

This particular message movie comes to us from the memoirs of Garrard Conley, an activist who has written extensively about the abusive horror of gay conversion camps, based on his own experience as a college freshman outed to his parents, a Baptist minister and his wife. For no apparent reason, Conley has been renamed "Jared Eamons" by writer-director Joel Edgerton, even though the ending title cards go back to talking about "Garrard" without a single backwards glance. This pointless, little tweak isn't really typical of anything else that happens in Boy Erased, as far as I'm aware, but it somehow feels typical; at least, the idea that Edgerton did something dumb and useless just for the hell of it feels like the guiding principle for the slapdash way in which the script and film were assembled.

Anyway, we meet Jared in the form of digitally noisy home movies taken when he was a wee tiny child, and then leaps forward to find him arriving at Love In Action, the ministry where he will hopefully be corrected from the path of being gay by Victor Sykes (Edgerton) through the power of being constantly reminded that he's a terrible, broken sinner. The film tracks the several days Jared spends at LIA being harangued, as a parallel line of flashbacks in mostly chronological order shows us what his life has been like till this point, most especially his relationship with his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman), obviously a touch dubious about the whole "conversion" thing, and his father Marshall (Russell Crowe), a jovial sort with a desperate terror at the notion of having an aberrant son. At a certain point, Jared is released, still quite gay, and four years later, with several published essays about the experience to his name, he finally confronts his dad about how this made him feel.

Spoiler alert there, I guess, but in order to spoil a plot, there needs to be a plot, and not just in the strict "plot is what's depicted onscreen, in the order it's depicted" sense. Boy Erased does have that, but it doesn't really have anything else; it serves as a compendium of the things that happen in a place like LIA, which basically consists of really shitty neo-Freudian talk therapy and role-playing spiked with the highly antagonistic "we are all broken and bad sinners" mentality of American conservative evangelical Christianity. Jared isn't so much a character undergoing this process, as he is a neutral canvas upon which this process is enacted: there's absolutely no inner life to any of these characters, though Kidman's good enough despite her hugely functional role and her terrible wig (almost as bad as the nightmare she was sporting in Lion back in 2016) to invest layers of inner turmoil and omnipresent misgivings and guilt into places where they aren't found in the writing. As for Jared himself, I could only certainly tell you two things about him: he's gay, and he enjoys running, and the first of those two has been neatly denuded of any meaning besides the occasional longing glance. This is the second 2018 film to take this mostly uninflected, surfaces-only approach to the characters undergoing conversation therapy, after The Miseducation of Cameron Post (a film I disliked, and it's still unambiguously better than this one) and I suppose the notion is that showing how bad this all is does some kind of public good, except that I cannot imagine someone finding their way into a movie like this who actually supports conversion therapy. Besides which, Boy Erased doesn't even have the courage of its convictions: it depicts LIA as more of a dreary annoyance than a traumatic site of abuse, the most terrible things that happen are kept pointedly offscreen, and Jared doesn't have a sufficient amount of personality for me to believe that he's capable of being traumatised.

The only arc, the only form of narrative momentum at all, is retroactively plastered onto the film, when the four-year flashforward attempts to recontextualise this all as the story of a tormented father and son relationship, and it comes close enough to working that I can see how Edgerton thought it was all fine. But there's not much excuse for how slack this is, how nothing that happens in Jaden's life seems to exist as anything other than a momentary blip, how flat and exactly-what-they-look-like all the characters are. Edgerton's style is slow and talky, and between this and the rather strained thriller The Gift (which everybody in the world apparently liked more than I did), I think it's fair to say that he's got no sense at all for rhythm or timing. And for an actor-turned-director, he's not much interested in helping his actors out: he keeps handing the same banal medium close-ups to Hedges, and lets everybody else just hang around in shots with no particular sense of blocking.

It probably comes as no surprise, given the slackness everywhere else, that the film is a damp splodge of nothing stylistically: Eduard Grau's cinematography is strangely underlit, making the film almost as boring visually as it is dramaturgically. It's good for style and content to support each other, but contributing to overall sense of sleepy, drab plodding isn't exactly what that proscription is meant to be about. And so we end with a lifeless, earnest movie, the film equivalent of a passionate high school student who doesn't realise that they're the most obvious possible arguments in the most uninteresting possible way. 2018 isn't done producing Oscarbait, but I do hope that we don't get any more that are so... Oscarbaity.




*Neither of them to be confused with Ben Is Back, the 2018 release in which Hedges plays a drug addict.