A deft touch is brought to a delicate subject matter that downplays rather heightens, even as harrowing as scenes can be. Hedges, Kidman, and Crowe are all excellent here, while Edgerton’s Victor is a frightening portrait of religious narrow-mindedness.
Love in Action (LIA) is a program that Boy Erased is based on and is still used in the United States; one that tries to convert, mainly children under 18, has questions about their own sexuality while struggling with same-sex attraction, pornography, and promiscuity. So, when Jared Eamons’ parents were told he was gay, they gave him a choice to enter the program or be disowned by his family, but only if it was in his “heart”; if only the members of the conversation programs found acceptance within their own.
Jared Eamons is played by Lucas Hedges, a gifted young actor who has already built an impressive resume, and here plays the son of a Baptist priest in a small southern town in Arkansas. His father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman, a far cry from her role in Aquaman) are God-fearing, caring parents who love their son and want nothing more than grandchildren in their future. When their son is outed as gay, his father tells him there is nothing more beautiful than when a man and a woman come together can create life. Being a 19-year-old and under the threat of losing his family, Jared enters the program run by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), who believes God loves them and wants them to succeed, as long as they’re God-fearing heterosexuals.
The cast is in fine form. Lucas Hedges continues to impress and never tries to act older than he is, which is refreshing. Kidman plays the supportive wife until she finds her voice and does it well. There are two more performances that I am surprised are not getting more praise, considering the star power and roles that the voters usually love. Crowe gives his best performance in years as a family man of faith, who must come to grips with the loss of what he thought would be the path God chose for him.
Then there is Joel Edgerton, who plays Sykes, based on John Smid, the former director of Love in Action in Memphis. Edgerton doesn’t play him as an over-the-top villain; what makes Boy Erased unique is how it shows the members (or believers) of the conversion program as doing God’s work and never questions themselves on what they are doing. Edgerton also directed the film and didn’t build tension as he downplays it. It’s not salacious; they believe that there is no other choice but this program. They believe in what they are doing, and are accepted in the community, which you could argue makes it even more terrifying.
Sykes/Smid used to be a part of the conversation. If you have any experience in any therapy program (drug rehabilitation, for example), those who graduate from them sometimes become counselors. This is what makes the end credits so interesting, the fake-it-til-you-make-it approach, and the damage that can be done with this type of narrow-mindedness.
What it comes down to is Jared’s own autonomy, control of his own life, and is he strong enough to rise above the influence of others so he can live his own life. Boy Erased is a solid film that offers a glimpse at the power religious fanaticism still has on communities and even government regulation. These camps are only banned in six states across the country.