'Alter' boy

Gloomy drama 'Boy Erased' depicts so-called 'gay conversion therapy'

The new drama "Boy Erased" -- based on a true story of an American gay teen suffering through so-called "gay conversion therapy" -- has plenty of important pieces in place: intriguing source material, a tested writer-director-actor-producer in Joel Edgerton ("The Gift") and a cast of Oscar winners and nominees (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Lucas Hedges). Above all, it has its heart in the right place, on the side of truth, social justice and human dignity. Because of all that, Edgerton has a head start with most viewers, but despite all that, "Boy Erased" never quite coalesces into the deeply moving and insightful film its pedigree seems to promise.

Lucas Hedges ("Manchester by the Sea") stars as Arkansas teenager Jared Eamons, who shares nearly every particular with author Garrard Conley outside of his name. As he heads off to college, this only child of Baptist parents struggles with his homosexuality. Matters only intensify when a horrifying sexual encounter sets off a chain reaction, prompting an untimely outing to father Marshall (Crowe) and mother Nancy (Kidman), and a plane ride to a faith-based program determined to harass the gay right out of the young man. That's the God-fearing mission of Victor Sykes (Edgerton, slyly effective), who positions himself as the tough-loving Svengali of a resistant cult.

What follows is an incident-driven narrative that hits its marks in showing the absurdities and horrors of such programs while not delving very deeply into the psychology of its characters. Edgerton's script repeatedly raises questions (about what's going through the characters' minds or the complexities of their struggles) that it doesn't seem very interested in answering. The protagonist's name change and a policy of tiptoeing when it comes to devotional disagreement evince an abundance of caution. Jared's religious beliefs remain murky throughout, with only an opening narration to suggest that, despite his trials, he remains a believer ("I wish none of this had ever happened. But sometimes, I thank God that it did").

The movie's ace in the hole, then, is its cast of stars, including independent gay filmmaker Xavier Dolan and gay pop star Troye Sivan playing two of Jared's peers in the program. In her small but warmly tender role, Kidman seems on hand to do a good deed, while Crowe -- as the conflicted preacher whose deeply held beliefs threaten his family unity -- shares the film's most riveting scene with Hedges, a climactic negotiation of conditional love. Above all, the film works to the extent that it does on the shoulders of Hedges, who works mightily to fill in the script's gaps with his moody and occasionally explosive turn.

The film, which shines a light into the shadows of these programs where tens of thousands of LGBTQ people still languish, ironically appropriates a line from one of Marshall's sermons: "Let your light shine!"

— Peter Canavese

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