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If there were a poster campaign to represent "Troubled 21st-Century Youth," it would probably have Lucas Hedges' face on it. From his Oscar-nominated role as a grieving teen in Manchester by the Sea to a closeted gay kid in last year's Lady Bird to this year's trio of wounded roles—Mid90s, the new Boy Erased and the upcoming Ben Is Back—the 21-year-old actor has carved out a niche as the guy who can find soulfulness in emotional pain. And the remarkable thing, for someone his age, is that none of these damaged characters feels exactly the same.
That's crucial for a film like Boy Erased, which in this year of our Lord 2018 could easily play to only one audience segment. Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, it's a story of Christian "gay conversion" therapy, and it's hardly a spoiler to reveal that the film is not exactly "pro" where that kind of therapy is concerned. But rather than wallow in smug nudges to like-minded viewers that of course we understand what harmful nonsense this all is, writer/director Joel Edgerton (The Gift) wisely keeps the focus on Hedges' performance, allowing it to become a rich character study of someone figuring out who he is, and what he's prepared to risk in order to be that person.
Boy Erased renames Conley's surrogate as Jared Eamons, an 18-year-old Arkansas college student who, as the film opens, is being checked in by his mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman) to a program called Love in Action. There, under the supervision of a minister named Sykes (played by Edgerton), Jared and his fellow attendees begin attempting to pray the gay away, all while working on family histories and moral inventories to help them understand the root causes of the same-sex attraction that they're so desperate to shed.
They're also subjected to various activities intended to emphasize their masculinity, and it's here that Edgerton isn't shy about making it seem ridiculous that learning how to hit a fastball or offer a firmer handshake is expected to help straighten these boys right up. His default position as a filmmaker, however, is resolutely low-key, so there's rarely a moment when he goes over the top in positioning the Love in Action program as a hive of hypocritical villainy. The introduction of Jared's peers in the group—a more effeminate boy who might be gaming the system, a true believer who has decided not to make physical contact with anyone to keep him on track, a big but sensitive football player—certainly cues up the potential for future tragedy, while not in that way that makes it clear which soldier in a war movie is going to get shot the minute he talks about his girl back home.
Instead, Boy Erased allows the weight of the story to fall on Hedges' performance, and Edgerton gives him plenty to work with. The narrative weaves back and forth in time, revealing the encounters that lead Jared beyond his mere attraction and curiosity. That choice gives Boy Erased a leg upon this year's other Christian conversion drama, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which focused so intently on the program itself that we never got a sense for what its protagonist had actually done, and how she felt about it. And Hedges gets to show off a wide range of colors, from tentative first steps toward self-awareness, to a belief that he wants to change, to outrage once he begins to question the program's effectiveness.
It's a bit disappointing that Boy Erased stumbles in trying to make its climactic emotional moment a confrontation between Jared and his father (Russell Crowe), a Baptist preacher finding it hard to accept Jared's sexuality. There's little time devoted to setting up the father-son relationship—and only slightly more to Kidman's Nancy, so that she ends up feeling generically motherly—so while the screen time is heavily weighted toward the therapy program itself, it doesn't build to the personal epiphany that would be a natural end point. That moment of clarity is powerful enough thanks to Hedges, who continues to show that there are new ways to play the process of wrestling with all the baggage that makes it hard to navigate the path to growing up.