Texting with a colleague after the world premiere of the gay conversion drama Boy Erased here in Telluride, I told him I liked the movie, but that it didnt tell me anything new. Which I immediately realized wasnt really fair; who cares, really, what it tells me—a long-out gay adult doing fine—personally? Joel Edgertons earnest, solidly made film will be most effective on, and maybe necessary for, those immediately suffering under the crush of anti-gay bigotry, and those perpetrating it. Screening the film to the Telluride audience is a bit of a preach to the choir, so to speak—so I hope the film will somehow reach those it might truly rattle, comfort, and change.
Adapted from Garrad Conleys bestselling memoir, Boy Erased follows 18-year-old Jared, son of a pastor, as he enters an outpatient conversion therapy program perversely called Love in Action. Jared is played by Lucas Hedges, a resourceful young actor who here locates the quiet confusion, yearning, and pain of the closet. All that trauma is especially acute given Jareds intensely religious upbringing, his loving and (they think) well-meaning parents further compounding his anguish in their attempts to help him. The parents are played sensitively and without Bible-Belt caricature by a wet-eyed Russell Crowe and an ornately bewigged Nicole Kidman. This fine trio work in rich concert, elevating the fairly standard-issue material to poignant highs.
Theres strong acting within the Love in Action facility as well, especially from Edgerton himself, who perfectly calibrates the mentor-monster duality of the programs director. The supporting cast is eclectic—rocker Flea, nascent gay pop icon Troye Sivan (who has a lovely original song in the film), and Québécois actor-director Xavier Dolan all appear—and each contributes a powerful or persuasive moment or two. Edgerton has built his movie well, a kind of prestige version of the issues dramas we used to associate with basic cable.
Boy Erased is pretty by-the-book in that way. There are points when the film almost drifts into somber dreaminess, but then Edgerton reins it in. The film flashes back on occasion, to two encounters Jared had with boys in college, one tender and the other terrifying. Theres an opportunity there for Edgerton to break from the films stolid formalness. I wanted to get to know Jareds inner life a bit better, to understand where the strength he draws on at the end of the film came from. This summers similarly themed Miseducation of Cameron Post had much the same problem: its protagonist was a bit of a blank, a cipher around which more interesting, idiosyncratic characters orbited.
Which brings me to a tricky point. Obviously, Conley is who he is, and this is his story. But watching the film, I couldnt help but wish for this same kind of narrative, but instead about a kid who cant quite pass—who presents in a way that is more, frankly, demonstrably queer than Hedgess Jared is. We see those kids on the sidelines in Boy Erased, and in Cameron Post, but there is still a supposedly more palatable “less gay” person at the center.
Ah well. Boy Erased is still a respectable effort, serious and sober, about a very real, very bad practice. The films heart is firmly in the right place. As is its head: theres a terrific scene toward the end of the film in which Jared calmly, but with a tremble of emotion in his voice, lays out to his father what a continued relationship between the two of them would have to look like. Its a smart, emphatic, direct piece of writing. And Hedges and Crowe are terrific together, as two men—one young and newly free with self-discovery, the other old and needing to reconsider toxic, long-held ideals—trying to lurch themselves forward together.
Maybe that is the something new that Boy Erased actually did show me: not another coming out scene, but something past that. Its an assertion of strength and principle and self-possession that feels pretty hard won. Thats nice to see. And when that gorgeous Sivan song cues up and the movie glides to a close—just as Jareds life bittersweetly yawns open—the tears arrive. Any assessment of this film certainly shouldnt erase that.
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