Lucas Hedges stars as Jared Eamons, a happy if conflicted 19-year-old freshman and the son of devout Baptists Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman). But when Jared finds himself attracted to, and then sexually assaulted by, an attractive dorm-mate (Joe Alwyn), his internal struggle with his sexuality becomes a very public problem, as word gets to his parents that their son is a homosexual. Highly religious and believing Jared is destined for damnation, Marshall – a well-respected minister – signs his son up for Love in Action (LIA), a two-week program aimed at re-orienting gay teens and adults, and “helping” them embrace heterosexuality.
LIA is run by a bespectacled zealot named Victor Sykes (Edgerton), whose “treatment” for participants includes strict regulations on everything from reading material to clothing, and an endless series of pointless, demeaning exercises, such as butching up gay men and girl-ifying gay women by teaching them the “right” way to behave. There’s also a mock funeral – and subsequent “beating the Devil out of him” sequence – that’s cringe-inducing and infuriating to watch, especially given the fact that programs like Love in Action are still legal in many states, despite being widely denounced by the psychiatric community... and anyone with an ounce of common sense.
Jared’s harrowing journey through LIA makes up a good chunk of Boy Erased, but so does his powerful bond with his increasingly skeptical mother, who’s torn between her faith and her love of her son. At its core, it’s a story about evolution for the various parties involved.
Written and directed by Edgerton (who’s pitch-perfect as Sykes), the film is simultaneously a condemnation and celebration – it presents conversion-therapy programs in all their ugliness, while also celebrating those programs’ victims escaping and liberating themselves of the religious doctrine aimed at keeping them down, eventually accepting themselves for who they are.
Hedges, with his gentle demeanor and boyish charm, is perfectly cast as the wide-eyed and kind-hearted Jared, and Kidman – sporting a fabulous mile-high wig and dramatic make-up – is terrific as the fierce mama bear whose eyes are slowly, and lovingly, opened to the realities of her son’s life. While Crowe is fine as Jared’s dad, his character feels the least fleshed-out, though – his presence in the film feels fleeting and two-dimensional, which may be a product of the source material or the way things unfolded in real life. Either way, I felt least affected by his performance.
Edgerton also peppers his cast with strong supporting players who elevate the material further, including Alwyn, Xavier Dolan (as one of Jared’s later loves), Cherry Jones (as an understanding doctor), Flea (as a terrifying right-wing nut) and Britton Sear, whose turn as a quiet teenaged football player tormented for being gay is one of the film’s most moving performances.
Despite its difficult subject matter and challenging story, Boy Erased remains hopeful. There’s an optimism that Edgerton ensures percolates just below its surface, as fervent anti-gay ideology is challenged and, ultimately, overcome. And if the people in Conley’s life and these conversion programs can come around, there’s clearly hope for many others like them, as well.