Talk about a movie with its heart in the right place. In adapting Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir about enduring a gay conversion facility, writer-director Joel Edgerton manages to criticize the alleged therapy without condemning the individuals caught in its trap. In the case of Jared Eamons, an Arkansas teen played with wrenching conviction by Lucas Hedges (one of the finest actors of his generation), his oppressors appear to be his conservative Christian parents. His dad, Marshall (Russell Crowe), is a Baptist minister (he also owns a Ford dealership) who preaches a strict adherence to the Bible and American capitalism. Mom Nancy (Nicole Kidman) at first hides her shock that her son might be gay and then agrees with her husband’s decision, based on the advice of church leaders, to send Jared away for a cure. Crowe and Kidman are such terrific, nuanced actors that we never see Marshall and Nancy as backward stereotypes. They show us the pain and confusion of good people trying to play by the rules of their faith.
Edgerton saves the heat of his reproach for amateur therapist Victor Sykes, who heads the “Love in Action” conversion center where Jared and other young men attempt to pray away the gay. Edgerton plays the role himself with the baseless certitude of a man who doesn’t know or care about the damage he’s doing. The script makes the point that he and the men who run the facility have struggled with their own sexuality. Flea, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist, portrays the facility’s macho disciplinarian, a burly ex-con who attempts to drill the boys into fulfilling an aggressively straight view of masculinity.
Earlier this year, the topic of gay conversion was tackled in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which also attacked youth camps that cruelly infused shame and self-loathing into gay teens. That film was set in 1993. If you don’t think the subject is still scarily topical, check out Mike Pence’s support for institutions seeking to change sexual behavior in the name of the sanctity of family. In Boy Erased, Edgerton takes us into the heart of one family to show us the human side of this type of heteronormative brainwashing. Though his film is often earnest to a fault, Edgerton wants to make things personal. And he achieves that goal whenever Hedges is onscreen, bringing heart and soul to a character who doesn’t know if he’s gay or not. Jared resists a deeper intimacy with the girl he’s dating and reacts viscerally to the naked men he sees on billboards and other ads. And then there’s the trauma of Jared’s attraction to a boy (Joe Alwyn) who first rapes him and then outs him to his parents. Jared so wants to please the parents he loves, but they don’t seem to love the boy he’s becoming.
And so Jared enters Love in Action thinking it might actually be an answer. In swift, telling strokes, Edgerton introduces us to the other boys at the facility. The flamboyant filmmaker Xavier Dolan (Mommy) turns inward as the abused, emotionally-stunted Jon. Aussie pop star Troye Sivan (his song “Revelation” makes a forceful contribution to the film) excels as the bottle-blond Gary, who instructs Jared on how to fake his way through the camp. And Britton Sear is heartbreaking as Cameron, a bear of a kid who can’t fake his way through anything, much less the tragedy the film has predictably in store for him.
Still, the reason that Boy Erased hits you like a shot in the heart can be found in Jared’s relationship with his parents. Kidman brings stirring compassion and a growing strength to a woman who learns about herself the more she learns about her son. And Crowe is magnificent as a believer who can’t quite storm the barricades his faith erects around a true reconciliation with his son. Crowe’s last scene with Hedges has a rending power. Not because it ties up loose ends — Edgerton resists that trap — but because it leaves the forward motion of Jared’s life to his own resources.