I wasn’t expecting the uplifting sensation of a feel-good rom com when I went to see Boy Erased on Tuesday, Nov. 20. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; the film — based on producer and LGBTQ activist Garrard Conley’s same-titled 2016 memoir — is about Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), who begins gay conversion therapy after his Baptist father tells him: “We cannot see a way that you can live under this roof if you’re going to fundamentally go against the grain of our beliefs.” But I wasn’t anticipating the unshakable tremor of a disturbing horror movie either.
By use of flashback, director and screenwriter Joel Edgerton reveals how Jared ended up subject to the cruel Love In Action (LIA) program. Jared’s newfound running buddy Henry (Joe Alwyn) spends the night in Jared’s college dorm room.
Neither can fall asleep, and Henry, without a word, comes climbing down the bunk bed ladder. I expected the two to share a tender first kiss; instead, Henry proceeds to rape Jared in one single heartbreaking and harrowing take.
Henry subsequently bursts into tears, admitting that he’s sexually assaulted someone else before and demanding Jared’s secrecy. Jared drives home the next day but receives no solace in the wake of his trauma; in order to ensure Jared’s silence, Henry, impersonating a school counselor, calls the Eamons’ home and outs Jared.
(It seems worth noting that many criticized Kevin Spacey for deflecting blame for an allegation of sexual misconduct made in October 2017 by coming out as gay, whereas, in Boy Erased, the perpetrator of sexual violence fails to take responsibility for his actions by outing the victim.)
And so Jared is enrolled at LIA, where all physical contact beyond “the briefest of handshakes” is forbidden, where self-proclaimed therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton) tells Jared and other goers that they are “using sexual sin to fill a God-shaped void” in their lives, that being gay, like being a football player, is a choice.
“You cannot be born a homosexual,” he insists to the attendees, because “it’s behavioral.” Their first homework assignment is to label a family tree with the sins of their relatives — alcoholism, gambling, promiscuity and more — in order to discover the cause of their “same-sex attraction.”
For God to love them, they are told, they must “fake it ‘til you make it.” Interestingly, Gary (Troye Sivan), who is also apparently seeking to become straight, gives Jared similar advice: Pretend the treatment is working so that you can be released sooner.
The group practice ostensibly masculine poses and do baseball batting drills; Jared easily hits the ball when it comes to him, but another attendee falls to the ground after being struck in the head. His parents come to reclaim him the next day, angry that their son could have suffered a concussion.
Sykes angrily reminds the cohort that they are prohibited from discussing what goes on during sessions — which include confessions of taboo fantasies and experiences — with anyone else. Jared first breaks the rule when he allows his mother to read the LIA handbook. And then, having recently witnessed the beating of fellow attendee Cameron (Britton Sear) at the Bible-gripping hands of his family members, Jared is primed to challenge Sykes. During an exercise in which he is told to express his hatred of his father, Jared storms out and dashes to retrieve his phone.
He calls his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman), who picks up her son after calling out Sykes for his lack of credentials.
Kidman delivers a splendid performance of grappling with the tension between her homophobic faith and her love for her gay son, whom she decides to remove from LIA. However, her speech, in which she expresses her guilt for having sent Jared to conversion therapy, though immensely moving, verges on cliché when she explicitly states how her husband Marshall (Russell Crowe) keeps her “in line.” As anyone who’s taken an introductory creative writing class knows, show not tell.
Four years later, Jared, now living with a boyfriend, drives home from New York to try to get his father, who hasn’t spoken to him since he left LIA, to read his recently published exposé on the horror of conversion therapy.
The two begin to reconcile, and these concluding moments are particularly evocative. Edgerton offers a nuanced portrayal of a pastor; Marshall endorses conversion therapy, not because he’s evil (as one might think) but because he firmly believes that it will save his child in the eyes of God.
Before the closing credits, text on the screen informs us that only 14 states (including Maryland) and Washington, D.C., have banned conversion therapy for minors.
Shockingly, the ineffective and harmful practice — which has been discredited not only by the Obama administration but by the American Psychiatric, Psychological and Medical Associations — is still legal in 36 states. These statistics are eye-opening and forced me to reckon viscerally with my privilege. I’ve never been more grateful for the luxury I have of being safely out of the closet.
The chief success of Boy Erased, set in 2004, is that it adroitly demonstrates the chilling relevance of its subject matter.
The Trump administration has proven to be embroiled in an ongoing effort to eliminate federal protections for LGBTQ people, and Vice President Mike Pence even once advocated for “resources to be directed towards those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
Boy Erased is, without a doubt, a powerful film, but I did find myself wishing that Jared’s backstory and personality had been more fleshed out. I wondered what made Jared’s struggle with religion and sexuality unique, what made his character idiosyncratic beyond the situation in which he was placed.
Hedges, though a sensitive and brilliant actor, can do only so much to compensate for Edgerton’s failure to adequately explore Jared’s psychology. Indeed, the boy that Edgerton’s strikingly restrained narrative has rendered is not quite erased; rather, he’s half-sketched.