Actor Lucas Hedges owns the film, letting us see the pain and confusion of a college-age boy in a gay-conversion therapy program. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Lucas Hedges, who broke all our hearts as a teen grieving for his father in “Manchester by the Sea,” is at it again. Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” based on the memoir by Garrard Conley about his experiences with gay-conversion therapy, puts Hedges and his spindly everydayness (he’s a nice-looking young man but isn’t Hollywood handsome; he could be anyone’s son) front and center. He plays Jared Eamons, the college-age son of a conservative Baptist pastor (Russell Crowe), who in the movie’s early scenes is driven by his mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), to a strange, blandly corporate building where a program for young gay men and women, called Love In Action, is underway. “But I am not broken,” the participants intone in unison, as prompted, “and God loves me.” They look, and sound, broken.
Told in flashback structure, “Boy Erased” slowly lets us understand how Jared ended up there, how he gathered the strength to resist the program, and how his parents, in very different ways, confronted their conflicted feelings about their beloved only child. But there’s horrific damage along the way; a charismatic program leader (Edgerton) teaches these young people to be disgusted by who they are, beating “the demons” out of them both literally and figuratively. Though the film works hard at extending kindness and understanding — even Edgerton’s villainous character is ultimately presented as a lost victim — it’s difficult to watch. (We’re reminded, via title cards at the end, that conversion therapy continues to be widely practiced. Washington state this year banned licensed therapists from practicing gay-conversion therapy on anyone under 18.)
Crowe is quietly effective in his few scenes, and a whispery Kidman, in a variant on the loving mother she played in “Lion,” movingly conveys Nancy’s journey; she seems, quite suddenly, to have woken up from a long sleep in which decisions were made for her. But it’s Hedges who owns the film, who lets us see Jared’s pain and confusion on his tightly clenched face — and who, in a gentle epilogue, gives us a lovely, wordless demonstration of freedom.
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★★★ “Boy Erased,” with Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Cherry Jones, Michael “Flea” Balzary, Joe Alwyn, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan. Written and directed by Edgerton, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley. 114 minutes. Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use. Opens Nov. 9 at Meridian, Lincoln Square, SIFF Cinema Uptown.