The tragedy of religious-based gay conversion therapy — “pray away the gay,” as it’s colloquially known — is that many of the young people who are forced (or, in some cases, who volunteer) to endure it have spent their short lives doubting their natural impulses. They’re told that their attraction to members of their own sex is either an active choice or the upshot of turning away from God, the church, and scripture, and letting Satan into their hearts. Really: Satan. In many ways, Jared (Lucas Hedges), the teenage boy at the center of the film Boy Erased (based on a memoir by Garrard Conley), has it good. His parents may be devastated when he confesses to his attraction to men, but they don’t berate or reject him. His father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), is a Baptist preacher with distant ties to people who “minister” to such deviant souls, and he regards his son mournfully, not as evil but as diseased and in need of help. His mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), drives him to his outpatient program and stays with him in a motel, cheerfully bucking him up with motherly love. But Jared’s life is one of fear. It’s as if the world is singing, “Every breath you take, every move you make … I’ll be watching you.” And he’s watching himself, too.
Boy Erased is the second feature directed by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who adapted Conley’s memoir and also plays the head of the pray-away-the-gay facility, Victor Sykes. As in his surprisingly potent psycho film manqué, The Gift (a fake-out that leaves you feeling enriched rather than cheated), Edgerton proves an incisive filmmaker. Every beat has weight. Every close-up registers. He values silence — he trusts you to feel things along with his characters.
After an overture consisting of pictures of Jared as a beautiful little boy (it sounds cheap but tugs at you — you don’t even know Jared and already feel the loss of his innocence), the movie proper opens with the teen’s arrival at the sterile Church-supported facility, with its central gymnasium in which young men and women stand and ashamedly read accounts of their so-called sins.
Flashbacks cover the main points of Jared’s last year, among them a night in which he remains unstirred when his high-school-cheerleader girlfriend puts her hand on his crotch. (Jared’s father, despite his traditional religious forbearance, seems fine with the prospect of his son “parking” with a girl. It’s what boys do.) The turning point is Jared’s increasingly tremulous flirtation with Henry (Joe Alwyn), a handsome, well-built college freshman whose behavior suggests the worst-case scenario of being gay among the godly: faithful church attendance followed by sexual assault followed by tearful confession — and then lies and betrayal. Henry isn’t a boy erased but a boy deformed.
The bulk of Boy Erased is set in the gay-conversion center, where the doors are locked and possessions (including a notebook of stories Jared wrote for school) are snatched away and scrutinized for aberrant thoughts. The movie’s tone is more solemn than 2018’s other pray-away-the-gay film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which gave you a few laughs at the expense of the pious would-be converters. Here, you wince even during a scene that might have been amusing, in which an ex-military man gives the teens lessons in posture: “Is this a manly shape I’m making or a delicate or feminine one?” You can’t laugh: He’s a genuinely scary guy. In the most grueling scene, Sykes directs the family of a former football player, Cameron (Britton Sear), to beat the young man with a bible. Even Cameron’s little sister has to land her blows — though she does so while plainly sickened, with tears in her eyes. Another “student,” played by the platinum-haired Troye Sivan, counsels Jared “to play the part” rather than fight back, but “playing the part” doesn’t just mean confession. It means participating in the cruelty.
Lucas Hedges has a difficult job — to portray a teenager whose best option is to reveal nothing of himself. The key is to make that lack of “reveal” an active rather than passive process, and Hedges does it with remarkable intelligence. His indecision is alive and moving. Unlike, say, Girl, Interrupted, the title is unapt, given that Hedges’s Jared isn’t a boy erased but a boy on hold, his paralysis willed: He will not define himself as something he’s not, so he won’t define himself at all. His scenes with Edgerton’s Sykes are all about resistance: Sykes moves in; Jared remains unbuckled. Edgerton plays Sykes as a man with no peripheral vision, so firmly and vigorously set about his task that you wonder what he’s hiding.
Boy Erased has an odd opening credit: “With Flea and Russell Crowe.” Flea is fine and Crowe is strange. He looks a bit like John Goodman these days, and it’s hard to tell if he’s being so self-effacing — without his trademark volatility — for the sake of the role or if he’s emotionally checked out. Because Crowe is, at his best, a great actor, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and admire him for what he doesn’t do — score points off the character for having so constricted a worldview. Crowe’s Marshall is not a man who will ever make peace with his son’s “choice,” but his judgment will be tempered by love.
As Nancy, the platinum-blonde, over-accessorized but naturally warm, vivacious mom, Kidman works diligently — as always — to overcome her essential brittleness. It’s impressive how often she chooses roles that are so far out of her comfort zone, though doubts remain whether she has one. She’s very likable, but I often end up wishing there were someone else in her roles who didn’t make so many obvious choices. Ah, well. In contrast, in the small part of a physician who knows how to separate science from religion, Cherry Jones is luminously real.
It’s almost unnecessary to point out that most physicians these days, even in the Bible Belt, can make that separation. It falls to someone as antediluvian as our current vice-president to believe that one can, indeed, pray away the gay. It’s a testament to Garrard Conley’s Baptist-preacher father that even if he couldn’t fully embrace his son’s sexuality, he could at least pray away the stupid.