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Beautiful Boy / Boy Erased

It’s been a long time since I was desperate enough to try repeating the failed experiment of reviewing two films at once. But this Thanksgiving weekend thoroughly flooded the marketplace with too many films to keep track of, and two of them just happen to sound like an ideal double-feature.

Beautiful Boy dramatizes the life story of Nic Sheff, based on his own memoirs and those of his father. Nic is played by Timothee Chalamet — an Oscar wunderkind after Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name — who stars as a young man repeatedly sent to rehab for drug addiction. Meanwhile, David Sheff is played by Oscar-nominated Steve Carell. The movie was co-written and directed by the Oscar-nominated Felix Van Groeningen in his English-language debut.

Boy Erased dramatizes the life of Garrard Conley, based on his memoirs, though his cinematic counterpart is named Jared Eamons. He’s played by Lucas Hedges — an Oscar wunderkind after Lady Bird and Manchester by the Sea — who stars a gay teenager sent to conversion therapy. The supporting cast includes Oscar-winning actors Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, as well as writer/producer/director Joel Edgerton.

Two tearjerking socially relevant films positioned to chase after Oscar gold, both wildly acclaimed by critics, and I’m watching them back-to-back to compare them. Buckle up.

Let’s start with our leading actors. To be blunt, I didn’t find Lucas Hedges’ performance all that impressive. Sure, he’s incredible when he has such powerhouse scene partners as Crowe, Kidman, or Edgerton; but on his own, he simply doesn’t have the charisma or gravitas to hold the screen very well. Couple this with Hedges’ previous noteworthy roles, and it’s clear that while Hedges is a perfectly capable supporting player, he doesn’t have the chops to be a leading man. (Yet.)

By comparison, Timothee Chalamet has a distinctly mercurial screen presence. It’s difficult to get a handle on what’s going on with him, whether he’s telling the truth, what he’ll do next, or why he does much of anything. Which is a huge part of why this character works so well. Precisely because this recurring drug addict is all over the place, with no telling how much lower he’s going to go or when he’ll decide to try getting clean again, it brings tension to his ongoing struggle against the next relapse. There’s no explaining or understanding what he’s going through because there’s nothing rational about it. Yes, it’s a little weird to see a leading character act so distant in this deeply intimate film, but it works here.

Then of course we have the family angle. Both movies center heavily around parents trying to support their 18-year-old children, but there are crucial differences. In Beautiful, for example, Nic’s parents are divorced and live in two different cities, so they can trade off and provide whichever environment he needs in the moment. While Nic’s mother (Vicki, played by Amy Ryan) plays a significant role in the back half, it’s Nic’s father who got custody of Nic and so plays a much greater role throughout the film. Moreover, David has a second wife (Karen, played by Maura Tierney) and they have two kids of their own, which further complicate things.

I’ve remarked before that Steve Carell seems much more at ease in comedy, and watching him play these dramatic roles always feels so strange because he’s clearly not in his comfort zone. Yet that actually works to his advantage here, as it highlights how David is deeply uncomfortable with this whole situation and he’s terrified that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Ultimately, David wants his son to be happy and independent, struggling to decide how much trust and responsibility Nic should be given, as any good father would. But when the son has a recurring addiction to every drug on the planet, that calculus changes. Plus, there’s the question of how much time, effort, and money David can afford to put into this child who may be a hopeless cause, especially when he has two other kids to think about.

Switching over to Erased, it should come as no surprise that Kidman and Crowe are infinitely more comfortable in their roles — at this point, they’ve proven that they can do just about anything (except maybe sing, in Crowe’s case). However, Crowe’s character is offscreen through much of the movie, and the bulk of Jared’s screentime is with his mother. Both parents get compelling character arcs as deeply religious homophobes dealing with their gay son, but Kidman’s character has by far the more striking journey.

On the one hand, she knows that homosexuality is a sin and she’s got no problem going with whatever her husband thinks is best. But then she sees up close what Jared’s conversion therapy is doing to him, and she starts to get upset with the draconian rules enforced by the therapy’s administration, stymied at every turn by invasive questions and constant demands for secrecy.

Behind closed doors, we see for ourselves that this practice of conversion therapy is rooted in turning the patients against themselves, each other, their families, all institutions of education, and basically everyone except the word of God according to Victor Sykes (played by Joel Edgerton). Throw in the ubiquitous invasion of privacy, coupled with the emphatic demands for secrecy (and of course the pressure to stay on board and keep spending money for as long as possible), and this doesn’t really resemble a church or a place of wellness so much as it resembles a cult. And anyway, if the methods are so stringent that even the patients’ loved ones aren’t allowed to know what’s going on, what the hell are these people hiding?

Basically put, Jared’s parents have to realize that his treatment is a zillion times worse than his “problem”. And watching the two of them come to that conclusion independently and on their own terms is deeply moving.

This brings me to what may be the single most important factor in both movies: The question of whether a person can change. Nic and Jared both have something deep inside of them that they’re trying as hard as they can to erase by every means available to them, and they both come to realize that it will always be a part of them one way or another. The difference, of course, is that the two movies approach the question from totally different angles.

Beautiful is all about addressing the tragic epidemic of drug abuse, sending the message that help is available for addicts, their loved ones, and those who grieve. Compare that to Erased, which states that homosexuality is not a thing that needs fixing, and is in fact infinitely more benign than any attempt at suppressing or “correcting” it. The filmmakers set out to humanize conversion therapy and homophobia without normalizing either. They successfully portray the issues and values involved, why anybody would buy into this, and why they’re disastrously wrong.

And ultimately, that’s why Erased is the better movie.

While Beautiful starts out strong, things quickly go downhill upon the realization that we’re only at the halfway point and there’s no way Nic has gotten clean that easily. From there, the rest of the movie goes through the typical motions and hits all the expected story beats like clockwork. When all is said and done, we’ve already got plenty of movies about substance abuse, and virtually none about conversion therapy. Watching somebody overdose is awful and all, but we’ve seen it before. Hell, we have movies that go way deeper into the worst-case scenario than these filmmakers would ever dare. But watching a college boy get anally raped by another man — in graphic detail — and then look on as everyone blames the victim… well, that’s something precious few filmmakers would have the guts to even try.

On a final miscellaneous note, I have to point out that both movies are told in a non-linear way, constantly flashing back and forth and sideways and every other direction. Additionally, both movies are very effective at juxtaposing voice-over with the visuals. That said, I find that Erased did a marginally better job of keeping the time jumps straight, with more innovative means of connecting one moment to another.

Also, Beautiful used “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. On the nose, much?

While both movies are wonderfully made and acted, I have to side with Boy Erased as the superior film. It’s more bold, more authentic, and it directly addresses a wide variety of LGBTQ-related subjects that don’t get nearly enough Hollywood attention. While Beautiful Boy features a powerful father/son dynamic at its core, and the basic message about drug addiction is an important one, it’s ultimately not a film that does much of anything differently or takes very many risks.

I’m happy to recommend seeing both — especially now that Beautiful has been in theaters for a while — but Erased is must-see material while Beautiful is merely a decent awards contender.

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