At first glance, it seems like Arkansas teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) got the good side of things. The opening sequence of the affecting, if uneven, Boy Erased—adapted from Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir—emphasizes this by needle-dropping gay Australian YouTube personality turned pop star Troye Sivan’s “The Good Side” over grainy video images of a cherubic, carefree Jared as a toddler. Never mind that the song is actually about Sivan’s guilt-ridden breakup with fellow vlogger Connor Franta. It’s the literalness of the lyrics (“I got the good side of you/Sent it out into the blue”), as well as the tune’s sentimental, guitar-strumming harmonics, that writer-director Joel Edgerton is exploiting. Go right for the heart and the stoniest defenses fall.
As a result, the steely images that follow of teenage Jared being shepherded by his Christian mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), to a gay conversion organization are all the more unsettling. It’s clear that the unvarnished tenderness evident in the home movies has gone missing. Instead of bridging their differences, Jared and his family are on a path to denying them, and the world around, slathered in oppressive tones of gray, appears that much more cruel and indifferent. This is the closet, the door slowly swinging shut.
It’s hard not to feel something for Jared, who’s the doted-on delight of his mother and Baptist preacher father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), until, as revealed in a flashback, he’s forced to grapple with his same-sex longings in the worst of ways. Henry (Joe Alwyn), Jared’s jockish crush, sexually assaults him at college—in an upsetting sequence photographed at a clinical remove. Then Henry calls Nancy and effectively outs Jared. Since Marshall wields the most power in the family, and has the biggest reputation to uphold, the path forward for his son is clear: Change your stripes or be disowned.
There are other choices, of course, and the film traces Jared’s protracted awakening to the fact that his sexual identity is in no way an abomination. He’s largely in the position of witness and journalist, observing the often absurd ways that the conversion facility, run by the smugly self-assured Victor Sykes (Edgerton, underplaying the mustache-twirling posturing to great effect), attempts to meet its impossible goal of eradicating queerness.
Boy Erased portrays a very particular kind of stupidity and sadism that’s masked as levelheaded certainty. It’s something you can laugh at until the perpetrators set their sights on you, a state of affairs best epitomized by the counselor (Flea) whose overcompensating machismo is risible, right up to the point he gets Jared alone in a bathroom, blocking the door and spouting “faggot” at him. It’s as if the counselors want their charges to underestimate them. And that’s when they go in for the kill, with twisted logic and sanity-upending exercises like the one in which an empty chair stands in for the parent who, in Sykes’s eyes, is most to blame for their child’s condition.
Jared’s fellow converts-to-be include Jon (Xavier Dolan), who’s masochistically in thrall to the program, and Gary (Sivan), a repeat offender who gets off on telling Sykes and his colleagues what they want to hear. They’re given a function akin to that of a blackly comic Greek chorus, along with Kidman’s bleach-blond Nancy, whose indignant eye-rolls at the conversion program only increase as Boy Erased goes on. The way she disdainfully huffs after spotting a spelling error in the center’s literature is hilarious, and it’s a lot of fun watching a movie star like Kidman playing the small-town—though finally not small-minded—parent that every gay child wishes they had.
More serious notes are sounded with the character of Cameron (Britton Sear), a portly, quiet boy who’s made an example of with a mock funeral at which his own family members attempt to beat the gay out of him. He also, at a late stage, acts as Jared’s protector when the snake-oil therapy at last proves poisonous. Yet lost in this spectacle of godly devotion taken to injurious extremes is Jared himself, who becomes more emblematic—a kind of sentient “It Gets Better” symbol—as the melodrama reaches its peak.
Good as Hedges is at acting the tortured teen, as in a scene in which he lashes out at a bus-stop advertisement of a shirtless male model, Jared is too much of a cipher for his story to really hit with the force that it should. You may admire the construction of certain moments—like Jared and his father’s concurrently bitter and heartening detente near the film’s end, their shared love of writing acting as a palliative to their wildly divergent worldviews—more than you feel them, or Boy Erased as a whole, in your bones.