Christianity and other spiritual practices already involve accepting things that don't seem rational and making sense of things that apparently contradict one another. And these are desperate young people who really don't want to be gay, so they are willing to try anything that promises the possibility of normal heterosexuality. So the idea that, say, making a list of the different "sins" practiced by members of one's family or learning how to hit a baseball might help a person get rid of same-sex attraction (that's what they call it) can seem like a great idea. At the very least, one can see why someone would be willing to commit to a program like this. The Baptist church has made homosexuality into the unpardonable sin par excellence, so nothing can be off the table when it comes to trying to change a gay kid into a straight kid.
I'm about to say something that I think might be controversial.
I honestly can't say that the gay conversion therapy in Boy Erased seemed that crazy to me in Baptist terms. None of the activities practiced in the therapy sessions seemed any more or less coercive, violent, bullying, shame-inducing, or insane than anything I experienced in church growing up. I'm really grateful my parents never sent me to any gay conversion camp (Thanks, mom and dad!); that would have totally sucked. But – although the film doesn't have anything to say about this – church life is actually like a constant gay conversion therapy in miniature. An effeminate boy feels constant pressure to behave in more masculine ways, to walk differently, talk differently, bend his body differently, firm up his handshake, tell certain kinds of jokes, play every sport possible, and pursue young women romantically. All while, of course, learning the scriptures and going to church all the time. In fact, if a boy does get a little too interested in masculine pursuits like girls or sports and thus slacks off in his more important spiritual duties, this is mostly ok with everyone. There is nothing, see, worse than homosexuality, except, perhaps, like, straight-up Satanism. So, yes, Boy Erased is a document of a terrible ordeal that several kids are made to endure because of their alleged sexual desires, but I would say that every kid growing up in the Baptist church feels these pressures, and queer kids in the Baptist church are made to feel them acutely.
The other structural element to the film is a set of flashbacks to earlier sections in Jared's life – all while he is an older teenager. These include sequences with a high school girlfriend, a Christian crush at college, and a Canadian painter. These are all intriguing, but I am not going to say anything about them because of spoilers. One of the sections is, in fact, very surprising.
But the film is not, as it turns out, very surprising. It mostly feels conventional. It's a very typical story – something like Thelma from a couple years ago – of a gay kid learning to be ok with being gay (although how he learned that is unclear, even apostrophized by the filmmakers) and then trying to deal with his mostly homophobic parents.
Edgerton also uses slow-motion way more than he needs it, contributing to the overall ponderousness of Boy Erased but not really contributing at all to our understanding of Jared and his journey toward reckoning with his same-sex attractions. But this is actually the point. The purpose of Edgerton's movie is a kind of public service announcement about how terrible gay conversion therapy is. Further, Boy Erased is a film designed to tell people about how awful gay conversion therapy is while not saying terrible things about Christianity or the Baptist church and not being a gay film. This is a mainstream film for mainstream audiences designed to change people's minds about gay conversion therapy and get some laws passed banning the practice. These are, perhaps, noble aims, and I haven't anything negative to say about them, but they make for a stilted film that doesn't hang together as nicely as it might.
As for Oscar nominations... I don't know. I am skeptical. I don't think this movie is very good, even though my own adolescence made the whole thing deeply moving. I can see Hedges getting some Oscar buzz as the main character, but I have trouble seeing him with a Best Actor nomination. I am fairly certain that Troye Sivan (who also plays one of the kids doing the conversion therapy) wrote an original song for the movie (it is, of course, also quite ponderous). These two seem like the only real shots Boy Erased has for nominations. Nothing else really stands out.
(Sidebar: if you know me and you have seen the movie, you know that there is also something that I should be talking about here that I am not talking about. This is the surprising section to which I alluded above. I don't want to spoil that plot point, so I'll talk about it at another time.)