Boy Erased comes fortified with intentions so loud, clear, and indisputably good that it may sound harsh to wish it were simply a little better. Yet here we are. An adaptation of the 2016 gay conversion memoir by Garrard Conley, the movie proceeds with solemn intensity as it hits some now-familiar notes. In suburban Arkansas, Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) knows he likes boys but hides it from girlfriends from whom he flees when things turn sexual. His father (Russell Crowe) is a local minister, and his mother (Nicole Kidman) is their happy steward. The façade holds until Jared goes off to college, where he finds himself making fast friends with an athletic boy who joins him for jogs and video games. He clearly falls for the boy, and after a violent, disturbing incident one night—an early sign that, if nothing else, this movie will not shy away from the horrors to come—Jared is outed to his family. Soon he’s in the car with his mother on his way to a conversion facility.
The urge to dramatize gay conversion has now given us enough novels, memoirs, and films that the events can feel routine. When Jared arrives at the center, we’re ready for the cast of undertakers who greet Jared and administer a dark regiment of therapy sessions and physical “corrections.” Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who also casts himself as the head of the ex-gay practice, Boy Erased tries (like other similar films) to gussy up the narrative with fragmented jumps back and forth between its protagonist’s sexual awakening and his experience at the facility, with tense home encounters in between. But Edgerton never quite finds a natural rhythm for the conceit, and early on, he ends up obscuring the aftermath of a brutal assault, one of the movie’s most devastatingly unflinching moments, and later, imbues Jared’s gentle experience with another boy at college (Théodore Pellerin) with a strange menace that doesn’t seem warranted or intended.
In other ways, Edgerton more skillfully avoids the genre’s emerging clichés. Unlike, say, this year’s Miseducation of Cameron Post, which can’t resist turning its facility into a gay-conversion Breakfast Club, Boy Erased’s patients are sketched only in heartbreaking flashes: a pale, petrified teenage girl; a former football player who looks permanently on the verge of tears; a boy who appears daily with new, unexplained bruises. We experience them as Jared does, as fellow residents with suspicious eyes who drift in and out of the sterile clinic every day. (Tellingly, at the end of the movie, we don’t know what happens to most of them.) Boy Erased is also less squeamish about depicting the physical horrors of the facility and even seems to escalate one particularly disturbing scene from Conley’s book, a faux “funeral” that here includes children beating other children with Bibles. This impulse is preferable to soft-pedaling, if also, in this scene at least, a little grotesque: The movie’s puzzling score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, pounds away at us with each new blow, as if this must turn into a literal horror movie for us to feel the weight of what we’re seeing. It needn’t.
Boy Erased actually spends less time in the facility than you might imagine, and seems more concerned with repairing the family at the center of the story, with a series of closing scenes that suggest a tidier future for father, mother, and son than Conley’s book ever does. So be it. This movie empathizes both with conversion-therapy victims and, to a lesser but still notable extent, the people who truly believe they’re doing it to help their kids. That seems noble and worthwhile, especially if it’s designed for people who still think there’s any room for disagreement on this issue. A more cynical read might be that Boy Erased is aimed just as earnestly at Oscar voters. With its showy cast (Academy Award winner Russell Crowe! Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman, in a wig!), forced reconciliations, and very own single—“Revelation,” by Jónsi and YouTube star Troye Sivan, who also has a small part in the movie—it’s as if someone got his hands on Miramax’s 1997 awards playbook. It can feel like a straight filmmaker and his mostly straight leads parachuted in to decree this issue important, while they also collect a few golden statues along the way. This, too, may not really matter if Boy Erased reaches the right audience, but with its distributor declaring, not quite correctly, that “77,000 people are currently being held in conversion therapy across America” in the film’s trailers, the commodified activism here can make you a little queasy.
Still, to me, Boy Erased feels mostly honorable and fit for its mantle. Whether a great movie about the gravity of gay conversion might ever be made is a trickier, and for now still unanswered, question. But one clue might lie in the contrast between two of its key performances. The 21-year-old Hedges, already Oscar-nominated himself and clearly talented, rarely leaves the screen in Boy Erased, and his gaunt, muted emotion carries him just fine for a while. Yet he doesn’t quite land the character in more charged moments, as when Jared screams and throws rocks at a glass-encased ad of a male model, or when he finally confronts his father in an emotional climax that really isn’t. There’s never a genuine sense of raw panic, of true fear and dread. Compare that with another, much smaller performance: that of Xavier Dolan, the French-Canadian filmmaker and actor, who cameos as a fellow patient at the facility who adheres to a strict policy of no physical touch, even on those unexplained bruises. In his fleeting scenes, you can see existential desperation in his eyes, hear it in his voice, feel it on his person. This is someone who’s slowly being destroyed, inside and out. If a movie can ever summon that kind of terror and rage at feature length, maybe it really could change minds.