Review: Powerful gay-conversion drama 'Boy Erased' puts faith in standout Lucas Hedges

Brian Truitt

“Boy Erased,” an affecting and empathetic drama about gay conversion therapy, is also the latest effort in Hollywood’s high-quality new genre: the Lucas Hedges movie.

Jared (Lucas Hedges, right, with Theodore Pellerin) struggles with his sexuality in "Boy Erased."

After giving a supporting boost to three fantastic films in the past two years – “Manchester by the Sea” (which earned him an Oscar nomination), “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – Hedges gets a showy lead role as a college kid in the Bible Belt forced to “change” his homosexuality or risk being exiled from family and friends. The 21-year-old actor holds his own in the emotional project (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; additional cities Nov. 9, opens nationwide Nov. 16) opposite a couple of heavyweights, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Just as deft in his work is writer/director/co-star Joel Edgerton, who's crafted a touching look at the darker sides of evangelical belief and parental judgment. 

Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir, “Boy Erased” centers on the fundamental split that occurs when Jared Eamons (Hedges) comes out to his dad Marshall (Crowe), a Baptist pastor, and mom Nancy (Kidman). Floored by the news – and convening a late-night meeting of like-minded church leaders – Marshall forces his son to choose between familial ostracization or Love in Action, a program aiming to put gay people back on the straight and narrow.

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Led by the righteously shady Victor Sykes (Edgerton), the facility is part brainwashing cult compound, part stifling prison that preaches homosexuality as a choice. Jared is detained there during the day, then stays at a local hotel with his mom where he does “homework,” like writing down which extended family members were into drugs, porn and/or other vices Sykes insists lead to being gay.

Nicole Kidman (left) and Russell Crowe star as religious parents who go to extremes when their son comes out in "Boy Erased."

There’s an innate and impressive ease to how Hedges connects with an audience, with a little bit of Matt Damon edge and an appealing Tom Hanks Everyman-ness to his performances. It’s on full display here as Jared confronts Sykes and fights back against this process that viewers will find as frustrating and wrong as he does.

The supporting cast is varied and strong. Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame) is a tattooed guy who tries to teach Jared and the other gay kids how to be more of a man (“Fake it till you make it” is his mantra), and pop star Troye Sivan plays one of Jared’s peers in the program. Joe Alwyn is Jared’s jock college hallmate in one of several flashbacks to the main character grappling internally with his sexuality, though these past dalliances slightly hinder the main therapy narrative more than deepen it. 

Kidman is absolutely splendid – and a bit primal – carrying out Nancy’s important arc from dutiful wife to protective Mama Bear. Crowe’s character is a lot more set in his ways: Marshall tells his parishioners, “Let your light shine,” and while the hypocrisy there is obvious, his struggles weighing personal beliefs against his love for his son are key to Crowe and Hedges’ dramatic faceoffs.

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Edgerton shares the same workman-like skill as an actor that he has as a filmmaker on the rise, and “Boy Erased” is a successful follow-up to his surprisingly ambitious debut thriller, “The Gift.” The fact that conversion therapy still exists in America is a maddening truth that Edgerton clearly wants to draw attention to, yet even centered on something born of such hatred, the film still places love and redemption at its core.