In Joel Edgerton's second film as director and sixth as a screenwriter, the actor-turned-filmmaker also takes a role in front of the camera, as the head therapist at a Christian facility. Sporting a trim moustache and a prim-and-proper look that'd make Ned Flanders proud, Boy Erased's Victor Sykes claims to be able to make teens pray the gay away and embrace heterosexuality. The counsellor expresses little sympathy for his charges. He may also have personal experience with his field of interest, but belittling the kids in his care — and forcing them to unearth family skeletons to apportion blame for their sexuality — is his technique. Sykes is the unmistakable villain of the piece, and rarely more than one-note. And yet, the film he's in thankfully doesn't share the same overall obviousness.
Gay conversion should be condemned. It's a horrific and inhumane practice that's somehow still part of life in the US as well as Australia. Worlds away from his filmmaking debut The Gift, Edgerton may paint his character in the most glaring of terms (and do a fine enough job doing so), but Boy Erased itself is much more evenhanded. In the second movie about the subject this year after The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the film directs its quiet but palpable anger towards those humiliating and persecuting queer teenagers in a misguided attempt to turn them straight. For anyone that seeks such services, it offers empathy. In a story about a college kid sent away by his preacher father and dutiful mother, that distinction is important.
Based on Garrard Conley's memoir, just with the names changed, Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the well-rounded son of Arkansas pastor Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Soon, he's also an unhappy attendee at the Love In Action therapy centre. After a horrific incident at school forces him to come out, his Baptist parents — and his dad, specifically — deem conversion the only option. Just what Jared and his fellow participants (including singer Troye Sivan and filmmaker Xavier Dolan) endure will threaten both his sense of self and his relationships.
Edgerton may write, direct and act in Boy Erased, but one of his biggest achievements stems from how he treats the film's main characters. This is a sensitive, earnest, sombre and understated movie that's shot in neutral tones, and wants to explore what motivates folks like the Eamons. Rather than judge them, it tries to understand these people who clearly love their son yet still send him to a conversion camp. With Jared, the film doesn't shy away from the impact of his experience, the conflict it causes or the difficulties of being a gay teen in general. He's hurt and uncertain, and also defiant and determined. He wants his parents' love, but not the emotional torture he's put through with their approval. Eventually, he also wants to stop self-censoring his identity to please others.
Of course, these characters aren't just creations on a page, jumping from Conley's recollection to Edgerton's dramatic script. Edgerton's other big coup with Boy Erased is evident in the portrayals that he nurtures out of his core trio of actors. Crowe grapples with the intersection of Marshall's faith and being a good father, while Kidman helps convey the punishing patriarchal constraints of religion, with both playing their parts in a textured and thoughtful manner. And as he proved in Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird as well, the supremely talented Hedges excels at internalised performances. Indeed, his work here encapsulates Boy Erased at its best. If Edgerton's own near-cartoonish part represents the movie at its most blatant and furious, then Hedges embodies the complex emotions that swell in almost every scene.