The Australian filmmaker Joel Edgerton, who directed “The Gift” and played Uncle Owen in the “Star Wars” prequels, is not gay. This felt apparent to me, a gay, watching “Boy Erased,” which Edgerton adapted and directed from Garrard Conley’s memoir about having to attend “conversion therapy.” It’s a film by someone who doesn’t quite grasp what it’s like to be gay and feel guilty about it — but I’ve never seen anyone make such a sincere effort to try to understand.
Garrard Conley is called Jared Eamons here (possibly because “Garrard” isn’t a name), played by Lucas Hedges as a humble college freshman from Arkansas whose father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), is a preacher and whose large-haired mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), is a preacher’s wife. We bounce back and forth in the timeline, but we come to understand that after struggling with his sexuality while at college, Jared was outed to his parents, who then convinced him to go to a church-centered conversion program called “The Source,” located some distance away.
It functions like a day camp. They stay in a hotel; Mom drops Jared off at the church campus in the morning and picks him up again at 5:00. The day is spent with Jared and a handful of other gay teen boys being instructed by the pastor, Victor Sykes (Edgerton himself), in matters of masculinity. They practice firm handshakes, good posture, and basketball, and make humiliating videotaped confessions of their sinful actions (or, if they haven’t committed any, their sinful thoughts). Those handshakes are all the physical contact the boys are supposed to have with anyone, lest their passions be stirred; one of the teens, a true believer named Jon (wunderkind filmmaker Xavier Dolan), has taken it a step further, proudly telling Jared that it’s been 23 days since he’s had any physical contact with another human being.
Your heart breaks.
Flashbacks reveal Jared’s past homosexual experiences — one negative and one positive, both confusing to him — while in the present he wrestles with The Source and whether it’s helping, and whether he even wants it to help. It’s in these details that Edgerton seems a bit lost. The setups and takedowns of the “villains” are easy, the specifics of The Source under-explored, the interactions among the participants not fully fleshed out. Edgerton understands the basics and has built a solid framework for this story, but it’s only in bits and pieces that it feels truly authentic.
Yet Hedges, a sensitive actor who has already appeared in three Best Picture nominees (“Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird,” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), brings heartfelt pathos to the role of Jared Eamons, capturing a young man who isn’t even sure how he feels, let alone whether those feelings are acceptable. As his parents, Crowe and Kidman are also outstanding: Dad the stubborn religious patriarch, Mom torn between her desire to be a subservient spouse and her maternal instincts to protect Jared at all costs. The eventual outcome is as satisfying as you’d hope, and though emotions run high, the film never descends into weepy melodrama.
Like I said, this is a film made by someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to feel guilty just for being, but who wants us to know he’s on our side anyway. “Boy Erased” feels like a protective hug from someone whose only certainty is that he wants to help, and who’s going to help NOW, with the light and knowledge he has, rather than wait till he understands perfectly. Like the similarly themed “Love, Simon” from earlier this year, it’s a good movie that does a great thing. To be on the receiving end of a movie’s empathy machine is a gift.
B (1 hr., 55 min.; )