“Boy Erased” is a drama about gay conversion therapy programs, based on a memoir of the same title by Garrard Conley, a preacher’s son who was sent to and fled from one such program as a teenager. The movie is effective but detached in a way difficult to pinpoint. The performances are strong, especially by Lucas Hedges (the nephew in “Manchester by the Sea”) as the boy being erased, renamed Jared Eamons here. The direction by Joel Edgerton, who adapted Conley’s book and who plays the program’s chummy, dictatorial cult leader, is attentive.
The intentions are true and we learn a lot, which is maybe all that matters given that only 14 states have outlawed the practice. That still leaves 36 states where it’s still legal to send your child to a place where they’ll try to pray the gay away, despite the entirety of the medical and psychological establishment’s belief that conversion therapy is ineffective if not actively harmful.
Another drama on the subject, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” came out earlier this year, and it’s a smaller but stronger affair, one which finds a solidarity among the heartsick kids corraled into such programs. “Boy Erased” is largely one man’s story of how he learned to believe in who he was and then stand up for it against the pushback of everyone in his life.
That includes his father, Pastor Marshall Eamons, a slow-moving bear of an evangelical. He’s played by Russell Crowe with a patriarchal rumble that carries a hint of threat. Jared’s mother is one of those self-consciously colorful Southern belles who can go along with convention or show an unexpected rebellious streak; Nicole Kidman gives life to a woman who, by all reports, is even more outsize in reality.
Would less-familiar players have made for a better, more believable movie? Crowe and Kidman are fine actors, obviously, and it’s not really their fault if their star wattage has the effect of distracting from their characterizations. That they’re native Australians, as is writer-director-actor Edgerton, may or may not help explain why a drama steeped in America’s Bible Belt seems oddly colorless. A sense of the larger cultural soup in which a family like the Eamons swims is missing.
“Boy Erased” is strongest when it simply focuses on Jared as he copes with the trauma of coming out in a repressed society. This includes, in the film’s most shocking scene, a sequence of collegiate gay rape that leaves the boy with PTSD, which goes unnoticed and untreated by parents, authorities, and, to some extent, the film itself.
The sequences detailing the mind-control techniques of the Live for Action program overseen by “Doctor” Sykes (Edgerton) are the movie’s most upsetting. Enrollees, male and female, are told to create “gene-o-grams” charts that pinpoint the sins of their family members. Boys are taught not to give handshakes but “man-shakes” (firm and direct)and to stand so as to make a “manly shape, not a girly shape” (form a triangle with your legs). Sykes’s staffers include a tatted-up ex-con (Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and a silent, angry-eyed fellow (David Joseph Craig) who seems like a human gargoyle.
Jared’s fellow victims, by contrast, tend to the sketchy and generic: The Sad Girl (Jesse LaTourette), the True Believer (Devin Michael), the Cynical Survivor (Troye Sivan), the Bullied Goat (Britton Sear). One of these isn’t going to make it to the end credits and it’s a pretty easy guess which one. For all that, a mock funeral in which one kid’s gay self is “buried” and to which his weeping family is invited is disturbing in ways the rest of the movie seems unwilling or unable to share.
Where’s the anger in “Boy Erased”? Slowly building up in the young hero as Jared slowly comes to terms with who he is and how he wants to live life (aided by a young man, played by Theodore Pellerin, who’s one of the few characters besides the mother who seems comfortable in their own skin). And maybe that’s why the film unspools at an earnest and heartfelt remove. The story’s real conflict — of faith in one’s God versus belief in oneself — is locked away where the camera can’t see it. Hedges is very good at conveying Jared’s struggle to save himself, but, in the end, he can’t do it alone.
Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, based on a memoir by Garrard Conley. Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 114 minutes. R (sexual content including an assault, some language, brief drug use).