Run time: 1 hour 54 minutes
Stars: Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Flea, Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman
Director: Joel Edgerton
At 19, Garrard Conley, a young homosexual man from Mountain Home, Ark., took his Baptist minister dad’s advice and entered a religious treatment center that claimed to make gay people straight by whomping them with Bibles and guilt trips, and training men made effeminate by not enough childhood sports to keep their hands off their hips and act macho. About 700,000 Americans have had such training, and they tend to remain as gay as Conley — or as his “ex-gay” therapist, who now is married to a man and regrets his days running a gay-conversion program.
You’d think the movie made from Conley’s hit 2016 memoir Boy Erased — starring abruptly ubiquitous arthouse-film star Lucas Hedges as the conversion-therapy victim and Russell Crowe, 54, and Nicole Kidman, 51, as his preacher dad and doting mom — would be an angry screed against religion. But Conley does not share urban secularists’ contempt for rural Christianity. “Like it or not, there was a Christian component to Boy,” he told writer Peter LaBerge, “compassion for myself and my parents and even my ‘ex-gay’ counselors, that can feel a bit radical in a true Jesus-y way.” The memoir is dedicated to his parents, not an act of vengeance.
The movie is a little clunky and obvious, but that imaginative sympathy gets you inside the characters’ heads, so you understand why an intelligent young man would give de-gay-ification a try — it’s not like he was happy to rebuff his girlfriend’s French kisses, traumatize his parents and risk hellfire. Crowe’s character isn’t like, say, John Lithgow’s repressive minister dad in Footloose. He radiates love for the son he wants cured of impulses on which he believes no one should act. Crowe, who watched Conley's pastor father preach a sermon in his small Mountain Home church, renders him as a conflicted man of conscience, not a cartoon villain.
There’s an authentic, touching scene between father and son that feels half-redemptive, yet frustratingly unresolved, because both are guys who can’t change, which worked out fairly well in life but limits their dramatic possibilities on film. Hedges is mostly a stand-in for the audience as we roll our eyes at the outrages of the therapist, played with crazy gusto (but less satanic malevolence than you’d expect) by the film’s director, Joel Edgerton (Black Mass, Star Wars II and III), who wrote it with Conley. Michael “Flea” Balzary, 56, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is entertainingly scary as an ex-convict therapist who’s more like a drill sergeant, and Cherry Jones, 61, nails a brief but important scene as a Christian doctor who gently recommends balancing faith and medical science.
But only Kidman, as the hero’s blindingly blond, flashily dressed mom, gets to play a character who changes. The movie comes alive when her son’s suicidal misery and his utterly unqualified therapist’s idiocies make the scales fall from her eyes, and she has a kind of feminist awakening. She’s a live wire in a movie so evenhanded, so full of charity for all, that it needs the jolting juice of her fierce rage and devotion. Her relationship with her son feels spontaneous and lifelike in a way that his dealings with his therapist and fellow therapy victims do not.
Previous Oscar nominee Hedges, whose last three films got best picture nominations (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), is getting Oscar buzz for his performance, but partly it’s due to academy voters’ sympathy for the film’s cause. Several U.S. states and foreign nations have passed laws against conversion therapy, and the movie is part of a crusade against it. But Oscar voters usually like big, clear emotions and sharply contrasting heroes and villains, not nuance, ambiguity and compassion for all. The better Oscar bet is quadruple Oscar nominee Kidman, whose odds are improved by the fact that she plays a blazing Southern beauty whose soul deepens in Boy Erased and an unrecognizably ugly, emotionally scarred undercover cop in her other big movie this year, Destroyer (Dec. 25). She’s still a long shot for a fifth Oscar nom, but her performance is the one thing about Boy Erased that makes it a must-see.