There's plenty of big-name talent in "Boy Erased," including the Australian triumvirate of Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and director-writer-co-star Joel Edgerton. The film, however -- based on Garrard Conley's memoir about his experience with gay-conversion therapy -- largely belongs to Lucas Hedges, in a movie that doesn't oversell its message in exposing the damage such intolerance can inflict.
Hedges plays Jared (yes, the name has been slightly changed), the son of an Arkansas minister (Crowe) who, after enrolling in college, must come to grips with the fact that he's gay.
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Exposed through an unexpected series of events, Jared's dad enlists the guidance of "wiser" men, which leads to the youth being shipped off to a day camp that -- the smiling faces notwithstanding -- has the uncomfortable feel of a prison, with those facing the indoctrination program adopting different strategies to survive.
Going along for the ride, meanwhile, is Jared's mom (Kidman), a woman raised to defer to her husband in such matters, yet who must balance her growing unease with her love for her son.
Edgerton -- who previously directed the 2015 thriller "The Gift" -- brings tremendous sensitivity and quiet strength to those scenes in particular. "Boy Erased" is similarly understated regarding its core issues, letting the audience see how much these young people -- raised by devout church-going families -- wouldn't "choose" this path, giving the lie to their instructor's admonition that they are somehow rebelling by being gay -- rooted in anger, disappointment or some other childhood trauma to be identified and overcome.
Gradually, the film exposes the bankruptcy of the "pray the gay away" mentality and reveals its cruelty to the vulnerable participants, which merely magnifies the inner turmoil they feel. "God will not love you the way that you are right now," they're told, a devastating thought for teens facing exile from the lives they've known.
In short order, Hedges -- who co-starred in "Manchester by the Sea," "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and the upcoming "Ben is Back" -- has become one of the signature actors of his generation, and he's terrific again here, more than holding his own opposite the supporting players, although Edgerton provides a moving showcase for all the key participants.
This is the second film dealing with this topic in a relatively short span, following "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," a smaller independent entry that starred Chloe Grace Moretz. There are also tonal similarities to the recently released "Beautiful Boy," another tale that pivots on the relationship between confused parents and a college-age son.
While both "Cameron Post" and "Boy Erased" will likely largely end up preaching to the choir, Edgerton's film feels calibrated -- as indeed, the filmmaker has articulated -- to engage the issue with considerable restraint. That includes empathy toward the parents, who are clinging to deeply held beliefs to which they can only continue to rigidly adhere, as Jared comes to realize, at the expense of their children.
What seems clear is that "Boy Eased" -- far from disappearing -- is one of those meticulously crafted films imbued with the kind of quiet power that can, and should, truly leave a mark.
"Boy Erased" premieres Nov. 2 in the U.S. It's rated R.
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