The film begins with childhood videos of a sweet, innocent boy (real life footage of the film’s star Lucas Hedges). We then meet the boy, Jared, as a teenager sitting in church while his dad, Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) gives a sermon about how nobody’s perfect. Jared’s mom, Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is cheerful as she listens to the sermon while Jared gets the attention of a young lady nearby. We flash forward to shortly after when Jared, now 18, is being driven by his mom to some location. He puts his arm out the window to simulate surfing the air and his mom tells him not to do that. When he asks why, she says that a kid’s arm was once taken off by a truck driver that way. He relents and rolls up the window.
Jared gets to a facility where he has to sign in and also give up all of his belongings until his mom returns to get him at 5 PM. Michael, an effeminate employee of the clinic, is rather sharp with him regarding him having to give up his belongings (including cell phones which were becoming common in 2004, when the story is set) and tells him that he has to delete anyone from his phone that will be a problem and they will dial numbers at random to verify that he has so he’d better be honest about it. He takes Jared’s journal and says it will have to be reviewed by Victor Sykes, who is in charge. Jared is given a tour of the facility and sees many young people in different rooms, all in various forms of therapy. At orientation, all the incoming teenagers and young adults read the rules out loud, one at a time – females are told they have to wear bras at all times; men are told can’t make physical contact with each other except for the briefest of handshakes. Nobody can go into a bathroom without any staff member supervising them. It becomes clear the clinic, called Love in Action, is a gay conversion program.
Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, also writer/director) gives a sermon to the group. He holds up a dollar bill and tells them that even if he crumples it, it still has its value. Even if he rips it, you can tape it together – it will have a scar but still have value. He considers their homosexual feelings to be sins and a choice they made. He gestures towards a robust teen, Cameron, and points out he plays football and he wasn’t born a football player – he chose to play football – and likewise he chose to have homosexual thoughts. Among the other students are Gary (played by musician Troye Sivan) and Jon (played by Xavier Dolan). Jon enters late and we learn he has done the program before and has been forced back – when we first meet him, he has a scratch on his nose and later he has a black eye, alluding to an abusive father. There is also a young woman named Sarah who seems very shy and nervous about being in attendance.
The group is told that they have to make a sort of family tree and list all the hardships people in their family have faced which is a direct line to why they are having homosexual thoughts. Among the list is homosexual/same sex attraction, drugs, alcoholism, gang affiliation, criminal behavior, use of pornography. Jared makes his tree but can’t think of a single thing to attribute to any of his relatives except suggesting that maybe his Uncle Chris is an alcoholic. Victor stops by and notes that his family’s lack of toxic behavior is the sign that Jared is truly the son of a preacher. He encourages him to consider his Uncle Chris as an alcoholic since Jared has put a question mark next to the one and only affliction he felt was applicable. Given his family’s lack of deviant behaviors, he wonders how Jared ended up having gay thoughts.
We flashback to Jared in high school. He is living a normal life in his Texas high school. He is on the basketball team (but only plays for five minutes) and is dating a cheerleader. His dad, who is revealed to own a Ford dealership in town, grants him a new Ford vehicle for his birthday. He takes his girlfriend to the lake with friends and they have a fun night out. When he drops her off at home, they kiss in the car and she pressures him to do more but he suggests maybe they should wait. She points out that they’re going to college soon.
In present day, Jared goes to collect his belongings and return back to the hotel with his mom. He realizes that pages of his journal have been ripped out. Michael, the bitchy “ex-gay” employee, tells him journaling isn’t allowed and Victor will have to evaluate the material to see if it’s suitable to have written. That night, Jared and Nancy go out to dinner and he passes Sarah in the hall, staying at the same hotel with her parent. At the restaurant, Jared asks her if any of their relatives had any problems on the list – she tells him their family has always been “normal” and after reading the list, laughs about the idea that they could be related to someone with the kinds of problems listed. At night, she jokes that she was once in prison because of her gang affiliation and drug problems, showing her sense of humor and relationship with her son.
The next day Love in Action, Victor is mocking the term LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) and the idea of inclusion for people with various sexual orientations. The group is introduced to an older man with a lot of tattoos named Brandon (played by Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) who tells the group that he doesn’t relate to their afflictions (same sex attraction) but he’s guilty of a lot of others – implying he was a drug addict and alcoholic – and that his commitment to God had turned his life around. He says that all the counselors there were once like them and that’s when Jared learns that Victor was actually an “ex-gay” (shocking because he comes off so homophobic). Brandon evaluates the men on their masculinity and points out that some are sitting with crossed legs which is not manly. The young men are then seen lined up outside and he evaluates the way they stand – telling them they have to put their hands on their hips so it forms the shape of a triangle. He berates one boy for having his hands turned inward on his hips. He then has a female student line the boys up in terms of masculinity based on how they came off, using her instincts as to who is the least masculine. Cameron, the boy who was applauded earlier for being a football player, is placed at the very end of the line. Brandon berates him nonetheless and makes him feel like he is not masculine enough.
The boys are then forced into a batting cage to try to make them more manly. One boy is very small and fey and he is afraid of the ball. Yet Victor demands he get close to where the balls are being loaded – one hits the boy in the helmet and he is knocked down. When Jared goes up to bat, he’s the only one who is able to hit the ball with ease, which impressed Victor. The group has to make a list of impurities they’ve suffered. Jared labors over this before writing the name HENRY down on his list.
We flash back to Jared starting college. He struggles to move a lot of heavy boxes and a young man, Henry (Joe Alwyn) assists him and takes them into his room. Henry takes an intense liking to Jared and the two go jogging together and Henry invites him to come to his church. One night, Jared and Henry are in Jared’s dorm while Jared’s roommate is out of town. Henry decides to spend the night and goes to sleep on the top bunk. Later, Jared hears Henry tossing and turning and asks if he’s having trouble sleeping. Henry climbs down and gets into bed with Jared and unexpectedly he climbs on top of Jared and begins to rape him, covering his mouth to silence his screams. This goes on for a while until neighbors tell them to be quiet and Henry gets off Jared. Henry breaks down and admits he has a problem and tells him that there was a guy at his church that he’s done “bad things” with. (It is later implied he has sodomized this guy, too; not that they were in a consensual relationship). Jared begins blowing off Henry which infuriates him and also makes him nervous that Jared will tell authorities what he’s done. So Henry calls Nancy, pretending to be a counselor at the school, and tells her that her son seems to be a homosexual and she should have cause for concern.
Jared is forced to come home while Marshall confronts him about this and Nancy stands by. He explains that it wasn’t a counselor but another student who had admitted to raping someone at his church and made the call because he was afraid Jared would report it. There is still the lingering question of whether or not Jared has had homosexual feelings. After he takes some time, he finally admits that he has had thoughts of men. Both of his parents seem very distraught by this information.
That night, two men come over and have a chat with Marshall. When Jared later inquires about this, Nancy tells her son that they are people from the church who were asked for advice on the situation. One of them, a pastor, has had a son in the same exact situation – over 10 years earlier – and they suggest Marshall respond in the same fashion, to put Jared into a gay conversion therapy. When Jared is asked if he wants to change (his homosexuality), he sees his mom’s desperation and replies, “Yes.”
Jared is sent to a doctor (Cherry Jones) to give blood because his dad wants to check his testosterone levels. She says she is a lover of God but also went to medical school and knows that they’re not going to find anything except that he’s a healthy teenaged boy. She asks about his sexuality but he skirts the issue, now determined to not disappoint his mother and father.
At Love in Action, each student/client is required to get up in front of class and give a speech about all their impurities. The girl, Sarah, nervously tells people that she ran away from home and stayed with a girl and the girl “put her mouth on, touched” and can barely explain that she is referring to intercourse by adding “my vagina.” It’s obviously very painful for her to talk about this in a way where she has to be apologetic and ashamed but Victor blows off her struggle with a congratulatory response. Outside a ruckus catches everyone’s attention. The boy who was knocked down by the ball in the batting cage is being removed from the facility by his angry parents who state they pay $3,000 for the course and his son was put in danger and could have had a concussion. Jared talks to Jon who tells him he had done the therapy before and was being forced to participate again. Jon has a scratch on his nose and we later see him with a black eye… signs that his dad is abusive towards him and he has no choice but to participate.
Gary gives a speech about how he had been living in sin by committing sodomy over a year’s time. Outside, Jon tells Jared that he has to “lean into” what is being requested of him by the staff or else they will decide he has to be put in housing (on an adjacent campus) where he’ll have to stay for a year instead of leaving at 5:00 PM like everyone else. He is informed that Sarah was sent there.
Victor discusses a story that he had ripped from Jared’s journal with him. It is a fictional love story about a boy and a girl. Victor asks if Jared secretly meant the two characters to be both boys. Jared says it’s just a story for college. Victor tells him that colleges assign books like Dorian Gray and Lolita to students and he thinks it’s not the right place for Jared to be. He was always expecting the gay conversion therapy to be a very short term thing but he starts to realize he might be forced to stay at the housing instead of returning to school.
Jared goes into the bathroom by himself and sees Victor outside the window, sneaking a cigarette while nervously looking around, afraid he’ll be caught. Brandon finds Jared inside and yells at him for being in a bathroom unattended. Jared tries to retreat but Brandon encourages him to pee as he planned to. The stream comes off intermittently and Brandon says it sounds like he’s using Morse code and then asks, “Are you sending me a message, faggot?” Jared says nothing in response, too afraid to say anything.
While driving again, Jared puts his arm out the window like it’s surfing the rush of air. She tells him again how she’s nervous (that a truck will come by and take off his arm) and he tells her that’s never happened. Nancy admits that moms just worry about their kids and want them to be safe. He starts growing distant from her and decides to go on a late night jog. While there, he sees an advertisement with a male model – he caresses the image and then throws something at the bus stop, shouting “FUCK YOU!”, angry at having feelings for men.
Cameron, the boy who is praised for being a football player, is chosen to do an exercise where he has to talk to an invisible chair as if it was his father and tell him why he hates him – the implication being that hatred of a father is why a man has sexual feelings for other men. Cameron struggles with this so Jared volunteers to do the exercise in his place. Victor shoots this down and says it’s Cameron’s task and he embarrasses Cameron for struggling. Victor then tells the class they are allowed to go on a break but Cameron has to stay seated in the chair. Sympathetically, Jared squeezes Cameron’s shoulder as he passes. Outside Gary tells Jared that everyone saw it and that it violates the rule against touching other men and that it’s best if he abide by the rules and they just succumb to what is being demanded of them.
Still working on the impurities subject, Jared crosses out HENRY’s name and writes down XAVIER. We flashback to him meeting Xavier at an art school while in college. Xavier is a handsome young man and the two go back to Xavier’s place after the show and discuss the belief of God, as it was part of the art exhibit. Xavier asks Jared if he believes in the devil and then wonders if he considers Xavier the devil (because he senses that Jared is attracted to him). Xavier promises to prove that God will not smite him and he crosses to his bedroom. Still clothes, Xavier sits on the bed and the scene ends.
The next time Jared goes into Love in Action, the counselors are staging a funeral for Cameron. Cameron’s family is in attendance, crying over a coffin and pretending that Cameron has died (from AIDS?) and Victor asks Cameron if that’s what he wants. Victor then encourages Cameron’s family to take a bible and beat Cameron with it, to exorcise his demons. One by one, they all take turns – his father being very aggressive with how hard he is hitting Cameron and his mother and young sister crying as they hit him.
Jared decides he has to “fall into” the program in order to make it through. It’s his turn to give the speech of his past sins and he talks about being with Xavier – we learn that they didn’t have sex; Xavier invited him to simply lay beside him, clothed, and they slept together while embracing each other. As he relays this to the class, Victor tells him he is leaving something out. Jared denies he had any other “gay” experiences but Victor tells him his father had told him about Henry. Jared says that’s not applicable (since it was actually rape) but Victor insists he had slanted the truth to protect himself (upon explaining the situation to his father) and that he needs to stop lying. Jared tells him he isn’t lying and he could make something up and say what Victor wants to hear but then he would be lying and the whole purpose was to denounce sins. Noting his anger, Victor forces him to parlay into the exercise where he yells at his invisible dad in the empty chair. Victor encourages him to tell his dad why he hates him and Jared says he doesn’t hate his dad. This doesn’t assuage Victor who points out Jared is angry and Jared explains he’s angry at Victor, not his dad. As Victor refuses to believe this and keeps insisting Jared is lying to himself, Jared gets fed up and pushes Victor away, storming out of the room and saying that everyone there is crazy.
Jared is chased by Victor but he sneaks in the administration area and retrieves his things from the storage unit where they keep the bins with everyone’s belongings. Michael, the flamboyant staff member, chases after Jared but Victor tells Michael to let the counselors handle it. Jared runs to the bathroom and Victor pursues and he asks Victor to give him space to collect his thoughts. Jared then calls his mom with his retrieved cell phone; fortunately she picks up right away and he tells her, sobbing, that she needs to come get him. Jared then goes out in the hall and says his mom is going to pick him up and they can’t keep him anymore. He is pursued and Jared says that if Victor puts his hands on him, the entire class is there and they will be witnesses. When Nancy arrives, Victor and other counselors are holding Jared down while they recite prayers. Nancy is locked out but can see her son through the window in the door. Victor tries to get her to come back later but she refuses and demands they open the door. They finally do. She takes Jared out into the parking lot, pursued by Victor. She tells him he’s not a counselor nor qualified to educate and she should have known better than to give him authority over her son. As she’s driving away, she says, “Shame on them – and shame on me, too.”
Jared waits for his mom at an empty restaurant while she has a phone conversation with his father. She returns and tells him her father wants him to go back to the center. While this sinks in, she explains that she had sat idly by while the men decided what would happen to Jared. She now needs her husband to sit by while she makes a decision. Jared returns home but his father has resentment towards him. At church, his dad gives a sermon about how you can show up at church but it doesn’t make you a Christian. The rest of the congregations shouts “amen” to this but Nancy shoots a look of disgust at her husband and clutches Jared tight.
One night, Nancy asks Jared if he knows Cameron, a name he recognizes because he’s the guy at the center who was praised for being a football player and had a fake funeral arranged where his family members beat him. He asks if Cameron is there – assuming he has left, too, and needed a place to go – but Nancy tells him she learned that he had killed himself and the police had come by to ask her questions about Love in Action.
Four years later.
Jared is now living in New York and has a lot of friends. He is a writer and is working on an article. His mom emails him that she was right – he clicks on a link and it’s an article about a kid who had his arm ripped off while sticking it out the window. He Instant Messages her, asking if she’s read the article. She has and is proud of him. He then asks if his dad has read it but she changes the subject and asks if he’s coming for Thanksgiving. He doesn’t drop the subject and says it’s important for his father to read about his experience with the gay conversion therapy. She says he’ll read it on his own time.
He learns that his mom is staying with his aunt and wonders what is happening with their relationship. Nancy says it’s only temporary but it’s obvious her relationship with Marshall is strained because she remains supportive of their son and he does not. When Jared next returns home, his dad is out and he asks his mom about her marriage. She says she knows that she has love for God and love for her son and the two don’t conflict – for her father it’s not that simple. That night, Jared waits on the patio for his dad and then asks him to read his article from the New York Times and telling him there is talks of him turning it into a book. Marshall is cordial but definitely doesn’t exhibit any signs of unconditional love – it’s clear he still wants his son to “choose” not to be gay anymore.
One night, Nancy comes into the room with Marshall and gives him a folder – he opens it up and finds the article. He begins to read. When we next see Jared and Marshall, it is at the Ford dealership he owns. Marshall says he has a present for Jared and he suspects it will be a Ford vehicle, like when he was in high school, but it’s actually an expensive pen that Marshall uses for sermons and says he wants to give it to him, “from one writer to another.” Jared tells him he’s gay and that will never change and he thinks they should stop forcing a relationship if it results only in small talk and no connection. Marshall admits he is disappointed he won’t have grand-kids and also that the dealership won’t be Jared’s – explaining he always pictured him taking over the family business. Even though Marshall still has issues with him, they seem to find a peace between the two of them.
In the end, we’re told that the inspiration for Jared, Garrard Conley, now lives with his husband in NYC. The man who inspired Victor Sykes has been married to his husband since 2008. It also informs the audience that in 34 states in the country, it is still legal to force a minor into gay conversion therapy and this has affected 700,000 people.