After making his feature directorial debut in 2015 with the thriller The Gift, Joel Edgerton is back in the director’s chair and has taken a complete 180-degree turn with his newest film Boy Erased.  It’s the film based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, which recounted his childhood experience being enrolled in gay conversion therapy by his fundamental Christian family. Edgerton’s film feels like it has a large message to send to its audience for such a small and intimate package.

Lucas Hedges plays Jared Eamons, the son of a Baptist pastor in the bible belt of America. As a handsome all-American teenager who plays on the school basketball team, and works part-time for his father’s car dealership, Jared is the quintessential boy next door. As Jared goes off to college there’s one large secret that he’s been harboring his whole life — he’s gay. When Jared is outed to his parents (perfectly cast Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) under traumatic circumstances, Jared is quickly enrolled in a gay conversion therapy program. Out of fear he’ll be shunned by his family, friends, and church, Jared starts the program headed by Victor Sykes (played by director Joel Edgerton).

Upon entering the program Sykes, who acts as its drill sergeant, confiscates Jared’s cell phone, and all contact with the outside world. He warns them against looking at pornography and forces them to diagram their family tree to indicate deviant behavior (abuse, addiction, and past homosexuality). They are forced to attend group confessionals, which are meant to shame them and mentally break them of their homosexual urges. Soon Jared starts to become at odds with Sykes tactics, and he becomes more and more aware of the gravity that is going in the program.

Lucas Hedges brings the same quiet emotional levity to Boy Erased that he brought to Manchester by the Sea. He’s one of the movie industry’s finest blossoming young actors. His character Jared has a talent for writing, and as we see throughout an ear for listening. Flashbacks to his journey in discovering his sexuality are sprinkled throughout the narrative. One in which he befriends a sexually fluid artist (played by Théodore Pellerin) in college, and forges an emotional connection with him. There are also small, but noteworthy performances by Troy Sivan, Joe Alwyn, Britton Sear and Xavier Dolan, all l of whom he meets inside the conversion program. Also, look for Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea, who plays a loose wire guest speaker who claimed that the program’s teachings have helped him.

What’s curious about how Edgerton, who also wrote the script, tackles the heavy material is that there are no traditional villains in the story. It also never quite seems to wave its finger in the face of religion. It would be all too easy to dismiss Jared’s parents as religious zealot nutjobs. But, even Sykes is a complex character who’s battling his own demons inside his harsh exterior. These are characters that think they are motivated by love, and truly want to help Jared. There’s nothing about them that feels one-dimensional. They are going on just as difficult of a journey as Jared is.

Nicole Kidman transforms into the role of Jared’s mother Nancy. With her country mom uniform of flowy printed tops, and sensible blonde bob hairstyle, Kidman here explores Nancy as a complicated and fully rounded individual. Here’s an actress who in 2018 has gone from a God-fearing Arkansan mom, to Queen Atlanta, the mother to a superhero in the upcoming Aquaman, to a deglammed police detective in Destroyer. Now that is what one would call range! Kidman is no doubt serious competition for Best Supporting actress for her gripping portrayal here.

Boy Erased feels like it was made with honestly, and has a big message for its audience about the dangers of conversion therapy. Still legal in 36 states, and a hot topic that’s still up for debate with the current presidential administration, gay conversion remains a reality for many in the religious communities of America. Edgerton is able to present the film’s straightforward message of acceptance in a way that could speak to people, and change lives.