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Boy Erased **1/2

by Ruben Rosario

Joel Edgerton was hardly the best choice to bring this true-life account of a young man's experience at a gay conversion therapy facility to the screen, but even as his flavorless direction keeps a respectful distance from the characters, fine performances from Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe force you to care. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

The white dress shirt is starched and neatly ironed, but it might as well be a straitjacket. As “Boy Erased” opens, Jared Eamons is getting dressed to head over for his first day at Love in Action, a program that aims to stamp out any trace of same-sex attraction from those who choose (or are firmly prodded) to take the plunge. With a little help from the Good Book, of course.

It's evident that Jared, played by Lucas Hedges, wants to do right by his family. There has to be a way to make these urges go away. He was a jock in high school, for chrissakes. Girls found him cute. But when you spend Sunday mornings staring at your dad on the pulpit, it makes this situation even more delicate. Here he is, taking steps to make it all go away. This has to work, right?

And yet “Boy Erased,” at least initially, flattens this corker of a story, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, into unremittingly earnest TV-movie fodder. Voiceover narration, obtrusive music score and distractingly flat staging conspire to take the sting out of the reasonably absorbing subject matter.

Writer/director/co-star Joel Edgerton, a straight ally who's committed to treat this LGBTQ tale with the utmost respect, clearly has the best intentions in mind. He's surrounded Hedges with a sterling supporting cast, including some inspired outside-the-box picks like French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Edgerton, who previously crafted the competent psychological thriller “The Gift,” has even written a plum role for himself as Victor Sykes, Love in Action's chief therapist. But what his approach is missing is insight. We always feel on the outside watching Jared's increasing frustration with the toxic emotional violence he sees being perpetrated. This is a very external portrait of internalized homophobia.

The filmmaker also appears to be afraid from showing Jared as flawed and prone to make mistakes. The character's stoicism in the face of trauma and a succession of indiginities grows wearisome. Hedges is a fine, versatile actor, but here he's saddled with a role that, as written, removes the kind of ambiguity that would have made for a more well-rounded portrayal. Levity is also in short supply, to the point where this reviewer began to wonder whether satire would have been a more effective way to tackle Jared's “pray the gay away” experience.

It also doesn't help that Edgerton has trouble juggling his screenplay's flashbacks. By so often cutting away to Jared's struggles in high school and as a college freshman, he loses the isolation (physical and emotional) that his protagonist endures as he bristles at the invasion of privacy to which he's subjected and, in a clever observation, balks at his therapy aids' plethora of grammatical errors.

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But “Boy Erased” is a curious case of a movie that finds its footing well after the halfway mark. Even though Edgerton makes quite a few pedestrian choices, there's a crucial one he avoids: He steadfastly refuses to vilify anyone. And so a scene where Jared's father, the Rev. Marshall Eamons (a pudgy Russell Crowe) gathers church elders to decide what to with his son is all the more compelling because the filmmaker's empathy extends to everyone involved.

What ultimately makes the film worthwhile is the way Edgerton handles the relationship between Jared and his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman, sporting a platinum blonde wig). The two are staying at a hotel near Love in Action, and their scenes together in the cramped confines of their adjoining rooms show a shift in their bond that pays off handsomely in a strong third act. It's at this point that “Boy Erased” comes together nicely, especially when depicting a tense confrontation between Jared and Victor in conventional yet undeniably satisfying fashion.

The movie's detractors argue Edgerton deprives Jared's journey from having a distinctive voice, that his square-jawed approach prevents the film from truly resonating with a queer audience. They're not wrong about that, but they're also not fully taking into consideration the way it hits home with the demographic that, I believe, the film was really intended for: the parents of LGBTQ children. More than a coping tool, it serves as the opposite of the dehumanizing treatment it dramatizes: bridge-building therapy that allows clashing worldviews to find common ground, much like Jared and Nancy. It's in this capacity that “Boy Erased,” frequently unremarkable yet still engaging Oscar bait, works best.

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