Joel Edgerton’s second film as director is an account of US teenager Garrard Conely’s ordeal in a church-supported gay conversion program, as detailed in his book Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family. And following a recent landmark report on the practice’s prevalence in Australia, the film couldn’t be more timely.
After being unceremoniously outed by a vindictive fellow student, 19-year-old Jared (Lucas Hedges) is enrolled in conversion therapy program Love in Action by his Baptist pastor father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman), who believe it will cure him of his homosexuality.
Run by the charismatic Victor Sykes (Edgerton), the cult-like group’s methods are as dubious as its therapists’ qualifications in psychology, including tracing sin through a family tree and allowing a former hardened criminal (played to disturbing effect by Flea) to serve as a ‘Masculinity Expert’, instructing the boys on how to walk and talk like a man.
While the film is an indictment of the conversion process, Edgerton’s intention is to educate rather than judge. In providing an insider’s perspective and allowing the actions of the boy’s parents and therapy program to speak for themselves, the inevitable conclusion is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions rather than sinful actions and sexual preferences.
As the sensitive Jared, Lucas Hedges delivers another terrific performance as a conflicted youth following his Oscar nomination for Manchester by the Sea. And Nicole Kidman, continuing her current run of landing meaty roles, is equally good as the mother struggling with her faith and the innate need to protect her son.
Boy Erased plays out like similar institution-set dramas but is neither sensationalist nor sentimental. As important as it is affecting, Edgerton has dragged conversion therapy out of the church closet, raising awareness of this abhorrent and harmful practice.
It’s a cautionary tale for parents and a testament to the fact that you can’t simply pray the gay away.
In cinemas: November 8, 2018
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe
Directed by: Joel Edgerton