The perversity that is the annual awards race, in all its desperate clamouring for validation, for the supposedly conclusive enshrinement of the quality of art, has terrorized the cinema branch of the global artistic scene. No longer can any single movie simply exist and thrive on its own merits - it must now be hallowed by anonymous industry professionals, elevated above its competitors in order to be judged as being of legitimate worth, for existing below said competitors would surely diminish such worth, and these movies are all competitors, you know. These days, we are accustomed to the phrase 'Oscar bait,' and it is thus that Boy Erased appears on this scene, primed for awards consideration so completely, so calculatedly that its competitive concerns paradoxically overwhelm its artistic concerns, and it emerges as a rather artless creation. Of legitimate worth? Yes, it exclaims (though in hushed, overly reverent tones)! Look! See! Appreciate all this worth! Competing against less brutishly baity movies, that worth has proven to be relatively negligible, and so a movie whose apparently sole aspiration of awards success has all but wiped out whatever qualities it might otherwise have possessed winds up with no such success.
A failure, then? Perhaps not, since while its endeavours may be of questionable origin, the efforts therein have yielded some admirable results. This gay conversion therapy drama has its heart in the right place in relating its tale of trauma, and serves as a solid if unremarkable artistic symbol for the movement to see this barbaric 'treatment' outlawed. Joel Edgerton, as ringmaster both before and behind the camera, leans into this story's most potent emotional notes, every scene seemingly aiming to capture above all else the sense of what these situations must have felt like, the effect that this extreme behaviour must have had on those experiencing it. If Boy Erased is too reserved and restrained to evoke these horrors with the same force with which they were enacted, it's quite comprehensive in signalling toward that force, to chronicling this hurt and humiliation even if it never actively engages in it. As a sign of our sensitive times, it's hard to fault Edgerton for this approach, though a queer filmmaker might have taken a ballsier one, and delivered a more appropriately affecting movie.
Better to judge a movie for what it is, however, than for what it is not, though what Boy Erased is falls consistently short of the gravity that such a harrowing tale likely deserves. Semi-cathartic, Hollywood-style narrative beats are hit precisely on time, and while Edgerton is wise to the dualistic nature of how these conflicted characters present themselves, his lack of adequate inquiry into such presentations (even for his protagonist, whose emotional passivity is only given proper shading by its performer, Lucas Hedges) renders even this complexity somehow flat and simplistic. The cast responds to the opportunity to inhabit vivid, real-life characters in fine form, and the movie is very well cast - what appears, in the opening credits, to be a serious dose of stunt casting actually pays off, as everyone involved suits their part excellently. Yet a shallow acting showcase is not what this story demands, nor what a discerning audience should demand either. Even Oscar bait can be brilliant, if pitched correctly, but Boy Erased seems reluctant to pitch itself anywhere at all. It's all very smart, all very respectable, all very vanilla. It's queer cinema with all the queerness stripped away. Now that's perverse!
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