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‘Boy Erased’ is a thoughtful look at a religious teen in gay conversion therapy

'Boy Erased,' tells the story of a young Christian man in 'gay conversion therapy' who comes to see the process as immoral.

This image released by Focus Features shows Theodore Pellerin, left, and Lucas Hedges in a scene from "Boy Erased."
This image released by Focus Features shows Theodore Pellerin, left, and Lucas Hedges in a scene from "Boy Erased."Read moreFocus Features via AP

In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a young lesbian is forced into gay conversion therapy, an experience that for her is mostly a question of endurance.

She's not in doubt about her sexuality, she's not religious, and she bides her time until she can strike out on her own. Peripheral characters have different stories — I was particularly struck by a young man raised in a religious home who felt same-sex attraction, regarded it as sinful, wanted the "therapy" to work, and who was consequently in a heartrending war with himself.

I remember thinking that I'd like to see an entire movie about that character, and now here it is: Boy Erased, based on the memoir (the names have been changed) of Jared (Lucas Hedges), who was raised in Arkansas by an evangelical pastor father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and devout mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman).

Jared knows he's attracted to men, and knows that this is unacceptable to the parents he has been raised to honor, to the faith in which they've raised him. Naturally he's a jumble of conflicting impulses and feelings, framed by writer-director Joel Edgerton with a time-fractured narrative that shows Jared in high school, in college, and during his stint in a religious-based conversion-therapy camp.

The structure is lucid and effective. It's puts us in Jared's conflicted state of mind, so we feel how desperately he wants to be "normal," to live a devout life, to be attracted to the young woman who's attracted to him, to be the man his father so clearly wants him to be.

Hedges is an efficient, expressive actor, and has the knack for conveying complex information with a look or a gesture, as he does here, suggesting the turmoil within his character on the night when his parents assign him to undergo therapy. We see his desire for some sort of resolution to his predicament, and also his understandable fear of what might be in store.

The experience is indeed clarifying, if not in the way his parents had hoped. Jared quickly sees that the therapists are of dubious training and suspect qualifications (the process is banned in 14 states), and also that gay Christian teens like himself are a profit center. Counselors invariably suggest more extensive and more expensive treatment.

Jared's Christian upbringing echoes through the story in unexpected ways. When a counselor (Edgerton) tells Jared that he must be honest because God knows what is in his heart, we see how profoundly ironic this statement must sound to a gay man raised as a person of faith (this circles back to Jared's opening observation that in a way, he thanks God for sending him to conversion therapy).

Certainly the line resonates with Jared, who by now has concluded that the enterprise is immoral, and futile. And cruel — physical abuse is added to the list of the routine psychological hazing that occurs.

Counselors insist not only that same-sex attraction is a choice, they insist that it arises from deep-seated psychological wounds rooted in family dysfunction. In a striking scene, Jared is pushed to facilitate a "cure" by denouncing his own father. He refuses to relinquish love for the man who does not return that love unreservedly, a man who might also recognize the foundation underneath this act of moral courage, since he helped put it there.


Boy Erased

  1. Directed by Joel Edgerton. Starring Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Edgerton.  Distributed by Focus Features.

  2. Running time: 112 minutes

  3. Parents guide: R (language)

  4. Playing at: Ritz East