Two movies in and Joel Edgerton has already carved out a directorly style for himself. Edgerton, a versatile actor who stars in fewer movies than you remember him in, knocked it out of the park with his directorial debut “The Gift”. The psychological thriller delivered the goods and did so with restraint — Edgerton proved straightaway that he’s a movie lover’s director, one who avoids the obvious and relies on his actors to convey the subtleties of a story. For his second time in the director’s chair, Edgerton decided to adapt the book “Boy Erased,” Garrard Conley’s memoir about his time in conversion therapy.

The fictional version of Garrard Conley is named Jared Eamons, and he’s portrayed by burgeoning indie darling Lucas Hedges. Jared is the very model of a young evangelical: he’s the son of a Baptist pastor, does well in sports and in school, and has a Jesus-loving girlfriend of whom his parents approve. Brimming below the Bible-bound surface, however, is Jared’s knowledge that he’s gay. Eventually this knowledge makes its way to his fundamentalist Christian parents—his father is disgusted, his mother is speechless, and Jared is sent on his way to a conversion therapy program.

The people most likely to see “Boy Erased” probably don’t need a movie to tell them that gay conversion therapy is evil. At best, the practice is ineffectual; at worst, it’s torture. Conversion programs are often traumatic for the LGBTQ+ people who survive them. And not all do: victims of conversion therapy struggle with suicidal ideation at 8.9 times the rate of their peers. Edgerton’s approach doesn’t treat this tough subject reductively. During moments in which it would be easier to resort to melodrama—either by over-dramatizing the truth or by demonizing the advocates of a harmful practice—Edgerton instead translates the memoir to screen with a subdued tone, maintaining a naturalism that keeps the focus on character relationships and contexts. It is through understanding these people, Edgerton’s style whispers, that we can pave a better road for the oppressed and reason with the oppressor. “Boy Erased” speaks cogently to both sides.

Despite the movie’s character study route, Jared starts out as a nearly inscrutable character. At first, the most interesting thing about Jared is that he believes conversion therapy will actually change him, and so “Boy Erased” seems to be telling a story of fixed identity nixing false hopes—but the movie switches gears when it shows us that Jared had been having doubts long before he entered the program. The second act treats this like a character reveal, but it comes off like Jared’s character development is beginning too late into the movie. Even so, Lucas Hedges’ emotive performance is consistently absorbing.

Edgerton’s visual hints are still meaningful when his screenplay falters. He alternates between color grading palettes depending on how characters’ faiths are being acted out, telling us subconsciously how religion can be used to either hurt or heal. Scenes between Jared and his mother are powerful depictions of evangelicalism’s victims finding common ground: Hedges and Nicole Kidman really sell the empathy that instigates real change, and editor Jay Rabinowitz knows how to edit a one-on-one conversation for maximum impact.

Fans of musician Troye Sivan will be disappointed to find out that his role barely factors into the plot, but that shouldn’t stop them from seeing “Boy Erased.” Edgerton’s signature restraint is key to telling this story respectfully: when a quiet movie has a lot to say, you’re inclined to pay close attention.

★★★★   (4/5)