A gay teenager experiences the nightmare of conversion therapy in “Boy Erased,” written and directed by Joel Edgerton. While hampered by a jump-around brand of storytelling, the movie, with a stellar lead performance and relentlessly intolerant yet multi-dimensional characters, is more than a mere message drama.
Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, the movie, like Desiree Akhavan’s 2018 “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” takes on the cruel practice known as gay conversion. While less emotionally pleasing and satirically entertaining than Akhavan’s film, Edgerton’s accessible domestic drama — about a couple whose religious beliefs interfere with their love for their gay son — has lots to say without preaching.
Lucas Hedges plays Jared, the 19-year-old son of Arkansas couple Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist minister. In the opening scene, Nancy drives Jared to a facility whose leader, Victor Sykes (Edgerton), transforms gay people into heterosexuals, via psychotherapy and prayer, he claims.
Sykes subjects Jared and other young people to lectures and exercises telling them that homosexuality is an acquired condition often caused by parents and that it is sinful. Initially, Jared, wanting to change — his family will ostracize him if he doesn’t — tries to make the program work.
But the cruelty and insanity he witnesses (complete with a macho associate coaching the young men in how to appear masculine and “fake it till you make it”) cause him to reject Sykes and realize conversion therapy won’t change him.
Edgerton, who directed the tight, tense “The Gift,” fills “Boy Erased” with flashbacks of Jared’s high-school and college days to reveal how Jared wound up at the facility.
The frequent shifting between past and present makes it difficult to form a cohesive picture of Jared’s emotional path. Another frustration is the absence of clues regarding where Jared’s inner strength comes from.
Still, the film succeeds as a gay self-discovery journey and a condemnation of conversion therapy, a practice legal in 36 U.S. states.
Thoughtfully presented and excellently acted moments keep the movie satisfying, particularly an empathetic final scene, in which Jared tells his father where things stand between them.
Hedges, again shining as a sensitive troubled teen, carries the drama, convincingly conveying Jared’s confusion, fear and courage.
Edgerton deserves credit for not presenting Bible Belt characters as stereotypes (with the possible exception of Kidman’s blond wig).
Kidman and Crowe give sympathetic performances as terribly misguided rather than villainous people; Edgerton’s Sykes similarly impresses.
Cherry Jones, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Joe Alwyn and musician Flea appear in small roles.
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton
Written and directed by: Joel Edgerton
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Note: Edgerton appears in person the 2 p.m. Nov. 4 screening at the Embarcadero.