We live in an age when movies often seem more important for what they’re saying than for what they are. When we go into a quiet film about a serious subject–like Boy Erased, directed by Joel Edgerton and adapted from Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir about enduring conversion therapy–our automatic response is to approve of its aims, even if we can see its flaws. To criticize a well-intentioned film excessively feels churlish, maybe even a little dangerous, especially in a social and political climate that seems to be backsliding in terms of progressiveness. No one wants to be on the wrong side of the argument.
And yet, even though Boy Erased is well acted and thoughtful, there’s something vaguely disappointing about it. The bare bones of the story are horrifying, especially when you consider that it’s based on real events, and on a heinous practice that still hasn’t been totally eradicated: Lucas Hedges plays Jared, an Arkansas teenager who’s sent away by his ostensibly loving conservative Christian parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) to be “cured” of homosexuality. The costly facility they pack him off to–it goes by the creepy, benign-sounding name Love in Action–is run by an amateur therapist, Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton). Sykes makes it look like he’s administering tough love, when really he’s inflicting emotional sadism on his charges.
But the scenes set at the facility aren’t the most effective ones in the movie–they may sicken us, but they don’t surprise us much. That may be why Boy Erased sometimes feels more like a sturdy dramatic exercise than a viscerally potent work. It’s also the second movie about conversion therapy to be released this year: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, directed by Desiree Akhavan and starring Chloë Grace Moretz, focused more on the absurdity of such programs than on their cruelty.
The best scenes in Boy Erased are the most understated ones, flashbacks in which we see Jared navigating basic teenage emotional stuff, like figuring out how to rebuff his high school girlfriend’s sexual advances without hurting her feelings. Hedges is such a terrific, sensitive actor that he makes even these small moments wrenching. At this stage, Jared isn’t yet sure that he is gay, and he can’t give himself permission to figure it out. Hedges’ eyes tell us everything about Jared: it’s as if he’s waiting for the world to reveal some secret to him–he doesn’t see that the secret is inside himself, crying to get out. And Hedges is stunning in a sequence in which a college friend, a seemingly nice guy Jared has a crush on (Joe Alwyn), commits an act of sexual brutality. Jared is so confused and anguished by what’s happened to him that for a time he drifts through the movie like a ghost. Edgerton has a lot to say with Boy Erased; it’s a virtuous film. But Hedges is the movie’s heartbeat. He’s perfect just the way he is.
This appears in the November 05, 2018 issue of TIME.