From the opening minutes of Boy Erased, audiences know they’re in good hands when writer/director Joel Edgerton smartly and simply establishes the film’s setting through an Arkansas license plate affixed with a 2004 registration sticker.
The fact-based, coming-of-age story remains strong from there through sharp, straightforward visuals and an engaging structure of 19-year-old Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, Lady Bird) having memories triggered by exercises in a gay conversion program that his preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) basically forces him to attend.
The direct interplay between past and present organically informs Jared’s psychological conundrum and is amplified by a harrowing scene of sexual assault and the questionable, abusive means by which Victor Sykes (Edgerton) and his colleagues attempt to achieve their end results in the fishy religious institution.
In both timelines, there’s no weak link in the cast, but while Hedges gives a strong performance and ably carries the film, some of Jared’s key exchanges seem to require more emotion than the Oscar-nominated actor is capable of delivering. That’s not to say that huge theatrical hysterics are appropriate or desired in these instances, but the scenes call for something larger and Hedges’ reserved approach doesn’t quite match the stakes of the showdowns.
As for Edgerton, when he’s not leading his talented ensemble to stellar work — it’s especially nice seeing Crowe back in a film of substance — Edgerton pokes fun at the program’s illegitimacy with the host of misspellings in its instruction manual, one of several welcome moments of levity courtesy of Jared’s mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman, rocking yet another wild wig).
Thoughtfully constructed from a writing and technical standpoint, Boy Erased marks a promising follow-up to Edgerton’s suspenseful directorial debut The Gift and suggests he can handle a range of subject matter with a keen eye for human behavior’s many nuances. With thriller and drama checked off his list, the odds look good that should he helm a comedy or action film down the line, he’d fare just as successful.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Focus Features)