Boy Erased is the kind of topical, well-intentioned movie that makes you wish it was slightly better than it is. Based on the real-life coming-of-age sexual-identity struggle of Garrard Conley, the film is directed (a bit flatly) by the actor Joel Edgerton, who showed promise as a multihyphenate with his creepy 2015 thriller The Gift.
The boy in Boy Erased is played by Lucas Hedges, and the 19-year-old isn’t so much erased as cast aside like an inconvenience by his Arkansas Bible Belt parents — a conservative pastor (a bearlike Russell Crowe) and a pushover-till-late-in-the-game mother (Nicole Kidman, excellent under a Dollywood wig). Hedges’ Jared is ashamed and terrified by the attraction he feels to other boys. Jared’s parents aren’t prepared to deal with their son’s yearnings, so they pack him off to a conversion-therapy program run by a bullying tyrant (Edgerton), which runs on the principle that there’s no sinful urge a trip to the batting cages can’t fix.
Hedges, so good in Manchester by the Sea, makes his in-the-closet confusion palpable and tragic. Still, unlike the similarly themed Miseducation of Cameron Post from earlier this year, the film never quite rises above its TV-movie-of-the-week trappings. Your heart can’t help but go out to these teens, who are shunned for simply being who they are. But despite the film’s urgency, it feels dramatically undercooked until the final act, when both Crowe and Kidman come around with varying degrees of compassion.
There’s no doubt that the film’s heart is solidly in the right place. And if there is even one confused kid — or mother or father — who sees Boy Erased and gains an extra ounce of understanding as a result, then it will have done a real service.