Boy Erased, based on the memoir by Gerrard Conley and written and directed by actor Joel Edgerton (who also plays a part in the movie) is the true story of Jared Eamons the son of a fundamentalist preacher, Marshall (played with some comeback cred by Russell Crowe) and a conservative, pretty, bubbly mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman determined to play normal people despite her ravishing looks) who live in a small city in Arkansas. Lucas Hedges plays Jared, a fictionalized name for Gerrard apparently. He is conflicted and confused when he finds himself attracted to other men. While at college, a friendship with fellow student Henry (Joe Alwyn) goes bad when Henry assaults him. To ensure Jared’s silence Henry poses as a school counselor and calls Jared’s parents and maliciously outs him.
Distraught and overwhelmed, Jared’s father consults some wise men from his congregation who suggest Jared attend “Love in Action,” a gay conversion facility. Because the therapy is conducted under the guise of God’s Love Marshall feels it is a safe place to send Jared. Faced with possible banishment from the family, Jared reluctantly agrees to attend. At first Jared gives it the old college try and makes an effort. However, his optimism is slim from the beginning and it wanes quickly once he gets inside the doors of the facility, where he is a prisoner from nine to five every day. Nancy accompanies him and stays with him in a hotel for the intended two week period, as the facility is far from their home.
The details of the daily sessions and how they subtly, incrementally become insidious and harmful to the “patients’” both mental and physical health is the focus of the middle of the film and it is both interesting and disturbing. From voting on the most masculine “standing” to writing a monologue about your greatest sin, Victor, played by Edgerton conducts sessions to both strip and build up the clients. It is fascinating and ridiculous. Ridiculous because being gay is not something you can change, especially by man spreading your legs and thrusting out your chin.
The film works best when it remains in Jared's POV and we are guided through Jared’s emotional journey as he navigates his parents’ seemingly conditional love and he struggles to accept himself. Edgerton is fair to all parties, as it is clear that Jared’s parents love him and even though gay conversion therapy seems so outrageously wrongheaded, the parents never seem villainous, especially Kidman’s Nancy whose instinct tells her when her son is in serious danger.
Kidman, is making a career out of playing mothers in high profile films. Two years ago she received an Oscar nomination for playing a sympathetic mother in Lion. It’s not that she isn’t convincing as a mother, I find her more interesting when she plays less noble, more conflicted characters. When it comes to filial love, mothers are rarely ambivalent. Crowe is good also and more subtle than usual. He certainly looks the part of an overweight preacher. Gone is his Gladitor physique.
But the film works because of Lucas Hedges, who is one of the finest young actors working today. At age 22 he has already been nominated for an Oscar and has been in three films nominated for best picture (Manchester by the Sea, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, and Ladybird). He is making smart choices. His clear-eyed, unflinchingly honest and vulnerable Jared is the heart and soul of the film, and every feeling is earned and authentic as he struggles to love his family, himself and come out proud.