Theodore Pellerin and Lucas Hedges in “Boy Erased.”
Photo: Focus Features
“Boy Erased” deals with gay conversion therapy and also a culture and a way of life in which such a thing could make sense. It’s an immersion into a world and a mindset, both of which are foreign to most people that live in cities, but the foreignness makes it fascinating. To writer-director Joel Edgerton’s credit, “Boy Erased” is fair to people who think in this way, even as it exposes the bad things that can happen as a result.
The film is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of growing up gay in Fundamentalist Arkansas. The names are changed, and so here we follow the story of Jared (Lucas Hedges), an intelligent kid whose mother seems like a meek church lady — except that she is played by Nicole Kidman, so she can’t stay meek for long — and his father is a Baptist preacher, played by the always formidable Russell Crowe.
On the surface, everything’s great. Jared has a girlfriend, and he is about to graduate high school. But the girlfriend is unable to persuade him to have sex with her; and Jared lives with the oppressive knowledge that his thoughts, fantasies and impulses define him as something wrong and perhaps evil in the belief system of everyone he knows, including his own parents. In such a context, how could he not think that he’s the one with the problem?
He might have gone on like this for a while, with his internal and external lives at cross-purposes, except that one day he is outed. The outing comes in the form of an anonymous phone call, and in the ensuing family discussion, Jared admits to having gay proclivities. So Dad gives him a choice, either to be cast out of the house as a deviant or to agree to get help in the form of conversion therapy. Understandably, Jared chooses to get help.
Joel Edgerton in “Boy Erased.”
Photo: Focus Features
As Jared, Hedges gives a measured, carefully scored performance, in that we can read the progress of his thinking just by watching his face over the course of the film. He starts off guilty and hopeful. Being gay has been nothing but a horrible strain and inconvenience, so if he can be transformed and jump back into the car with his girlfriend and a brand new attitude, that’s fine with him. But he’s too smart — both Hedges as an actor and Jared as a character — not to see what’s in front of him and admit what’s going on.
Joel Edgerton, who wrote and directed, co-stars in “Boy Erased.” Edgerton casts himself as Sykes, who runs the conversion program, and he couldn’t have found a better actor for the role. Edgerton is really good at presenting a sure façade, while suggesting doubt; an intelligent façade, while suggesting stupidity; an impressive façade, while suggesting hollowness — and conversely, a corrupt façade, while suggesting a core humanity. “Boy Erased” takes us within the walls of the conversion center, where we get to see the nature of the therapy, a mix of dime-store psychology, false arguments, flogging with bibles (literally), and verbal abuse: “God will not love you the way you are right now.” The therapy seems like an expression of Sykes’ own conflicts and limitations.
“Boy Erased” is something more and something less than an expose of conversion therapy practices. The therapy seems useless and potentially destructive, but more misguided than cruel or frightening. The larger picture is the social context, which encompasses not just the therapy, but the church, the community and the family. Jared’s parents find themselves confronted by a logical conundrum disguised as a simple moral issue. They know everything they’ve been told, and they know how they feel about their son, and they have to decide what to trust, their beliefs or their perceptions.
As such, “Boy Erased” is a low-key film, not especially dramatic or ambitious, but dedicated to showing how people think and can sometimes change. Within its small scope, it’s a positive achievement.
MBoy Erased: Drama. Starring Lucas Hedges and Joel Edgerton. Directed by Joel Edgerton. (R. 114 minutes.)
[[Mick LaSalle Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's film critic. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @MickLaSalle]]