In “Boy Erased,” his second movie as director, the actor and screenwriter Joel Edgerton illuminates a heartbreaking and controversial subject — the forced “conversion” of gay men and women through prayer and dubious therapy — with sincerity and empathy.
One just wishes the depiction of this true-life story, told by a young man who lived it, came off as more than a sermon-simple lesson in accepting people as they are.
Adapting the memoir of Garrard Conley, Edgerton’s drama introduces us to Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the dutiful son of Nancy and Marshall (played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe). Marshall Eamons is a Baptist preacher and owner of a Ford dealership in their Arkansas town, and he dreams that Jared will one day follow in both roles.
As the movie begins, we see Nancy driving Jared to a facility that appears to have the trappings of a rehab clinic. In fact, it’s a Christian-based therapy center, where parents pay large sums of money to help their children who have been caught being gay. The lead therapist, Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton), tells his “patients” that there is no such thing as being gay, because it’s not in the Bible. Instead, these young people struggle with “same-sex attraction,” a choice they can un-choose through Jesus.
In flashbacks, Edgerton shows us Jared’s first inklings that he’s gay. There’s the harrowing incident in college in which he’s raped by an older student, Henry (Joe Alwyn). And there’s an encounter with Xavier (Theodore Pellerin), an artist with whom Jared shares a tender evening.
Edgerton also captures Conley’s harrowing descriptions of life inside the therapy center. A picture emerges of a slow-motion horror show, somewhere between quack science and cult teachings, with staffers devoid of qualifications. Edgerton’s performance is particularly good in these passages, trying to convince young patients to stay longer while also hiding his practices from their parents. The rock musician Flea gives a brief, menacing turn as an ex-Marine trying to instill stereotypical manliness through batting practice.
The movie never takes the easy route of demonizing Jared’s parents. Kidman encapsulates the southern belle, caught between maternal protection and obeying her faith’s patriarchy. And Crowe is particularly soulful as the father who wrestles with his status and his pride when confronted with a son who may not be a chip off the block.
It’s likely to become repetitive this fall — with “Mid90s” already out and the drug-addiction drama “Ben Is Back” coming soon — but wow Lucas Hedges is a talented young actor. He cuts through the predictable coming-out tropes and dysfunctional family material of Edgerton’s script, and crafts a sensitive, heartfelt portrayal of a young man weathering a storm of conflicting messages to discover who he really is. From start to finish in “Boy Erased,” Hedges’ performance is indelible.
Opened November 2 in select cities; opening Friday, November 16, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City), Century 16 (South Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use. Running time: 115 minutes.