Seeking to survive a gay-conversion program, Jared (Lucas Hedges), the teenage hero of “Boy Erased,” is advised by one of his peers to “fake it till you make it.” What the kid means is that Jared should play along until he finishes the purported rehabilitation. But Jared’s parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) would prefer that their son fake it for the rest of his life — or at least the rest of theirs.
Most of the events in this fact-based, Arkansas-set drama take place within the confines of a sexuality-reform school of sorts with a sinisterly euphemistic name: Love in Action. Yet the crux of the story is the possibility of Jared’s reconciliation with his mom and dad. Predictably, it is Jared’s mother who is more likely to put her love into action.
Writer-director Joel Edgerton plays Victor Sykes, a self-styled therapist who runs the conversion center with the help of a thuggish enforcer (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea). Among the other young men whose identities are supposed to be erased are characters played by Australian singer Troye Sivan and Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan.
A literature student, Jared ends up in the program after a sexual encounter with a fellow college student who wrongs him in multiple ways — including by outing Jared to his parents. Jared’s father, a buttoned-up-tight preacher and car dealer, turns to his church’s fellow Baptist leaders for guidance. They suggest that the reader of Oscar Wilde and Vladimir Nabokov be reprogrammed at the center, where the Bible is the only good book.
Although the names have been changed in this scenario, the film is derived from a 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley, who began his writing career by exposing the attempted conversion he’d experienced. Filmed here in chilly shades of blue, the center is a grim reeducation camp where failure is certain. But there are various ways to flunk, some more devastating than others.
“Boy Erased” is a showcase for the 21-year-old Hedges, who played a closeted boy in “Lady Bird” and who plays a teen with a different sort of burden in the upcoming drama “Ben Is Back.” In each of those roles, the boy-next-door actor finds just the right combination of ordinary and anomalous.
Hedges is briefly upstaged by Kidman, whose character finally switches from dutiful wife to protective mother to deliver a speech that’s humane and stirring. Her remarks are also altogether expected, which is true of nearly everything else in this movie. It’s well-meaning and finely crafted, yet short on surprises, either narrative or emotional. Like the conversion program it depicts, “Boy Erased” is unlikely to change any minds.
The final credits are accompanied by a trite Sivan-sung anthem, but the tune is worth enduring to read the brief notes about the subsequent lives of the men who inspired two of the movie’s central characters. Both ultimately decided that love, not religious dogma or family expectations, should guide their actions.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, sexual situations, obscenity and drug use. 114 minutes.