“Boy Erased ” is based on the true story of a young man, Garrard Conley, whose Baptist family put him in a conversion therapy center to “cure” his homosexuality when he was just 19-years-old. Conley wrote about his experiences in a memoir, which writer-director-actor Joel Edgerton has adapted for the screen in a manner that is admirably and almost radically empathetic to all its characters — even the villains.
In the film, the protagonist is called Jared Eamons, giving a little distance perhaps from the real life subjects. He is played with deep soulfulness by the talented actor Lucas Hedges who has yet to meet a role he can’t conquer. His parents are Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), a respected local pastor and car salesman in Arkansas, and Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman), a dutiful wife and caring mother with a penchant for tastefully bedazzled clothing.
They’re the kind of family who when presented with the information that their only son might be gay, aren’t just opposed to the idea, but believe deep down that it’s a sin, a choice, and an affliction that can be cured, on par with things like domestic violence, alcoholism and pedophilia. But they’re also the kind of family who believes that this mentality comes from love, not intolerance or prejudice.
And so, after some tears and consulting with local men of the church who’ve “dealt” with things like this before, Marshall decides to ship Jared off to conversion therapy to be fixed in a program run by a man named Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton himself). This is not to say that the film doesn’t have a point of view, it just doesn’t rush to demonize the people putting Jared in this situation. The administrators at the center (including Flea as an ex-con there to muscle the kids into submission) do that well enough on their own, and without external embellishment or contrivances.
The story is told in real time peppered with various flashbacks as Jared wrestles with what he’s been through (including an incredibly traumatic and upsetting incident that I won’t say anything more about here), what he’s felt and what he wants to do. We don’t get much of Jared’s internal monologue, but there is the sense that there is real conflict in him. He’s a good kid who is used to pleasing his parents, and now, through no fault of his own, he has managed to disappoint them and he carries that shame.
The center devolves into a place of horrors as the weeks go on, but there is a glint of hope as Nancy, who is stewarding her son to and from the sessions while they stay in a local hotel, starts to read up on their philosophies and techniques. It’s an arc that I didn’t see coming and one that justifies why someone as brilliant as Kidman was necessary. Even Crowe, who is mostly absent, gets his own few minutes of affecting emotion by the end.
You do wish you got to know everyone a little better, especially Jared’s therapy-mates (Troye Sivan, Jesse LaTourette, Britton Sear among them) but the film keeps the viewer at a bit of a distance.
For Edgerton as a writer and director, “Boy Erased” is very strong, albeit less flashy, follow-up to his first film “The Gift,” a taut thriller that couldn’t be more different from this one. “Boy Erased” is undoubtedly more important, however, and even though it might be difficult to watch at times, it’s done with such evident love and sensitivity that it’s hard to imagine a human being not connecting in some way, and perhaps even learning something along the way.
“Boy Erased,” a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use.” Running time: 114 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr