The Evils of Gay Conversion Camps
In 2018, it is still legal in 36 out of 50 American states to send children to camps to have the gay prayed away. Yet, we know that sexuality cannot be forcibly changed, but there are bigotry-blinded, bible-thumping zealots who believe differently.
Gay teen Jared (Lucas Hedges) has been raised in a world where homosexuality is a choice made by the sinful. Crucially, Jared believes this himself and initially agrees to therapy mandated by his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe). The film opens with Jared already on his way to the camp where is denied the basic liberties of a phone, his journal and physical contact with other camp “inmates”. Camp leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film) has got Jared every hour of the day. In the first of two flashbacks, we learn that Jared’s first experience with sex was being raped by a college roommate. His father is not interested in such minor nuances of consent and sexual assault. As far as he is concerned, if sexuality is a choice, Jared must surely have been asking for it. Coming back to the present, we see an assault continuing but it is psychological with pseudo-psychological exercises and group confessions.
This is actually the second major film of the year to focus on conversion therapy. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” was the first. It was the Sundance award-winner and opened over the summer to a mediocre box office probably because it offered a somewhat too fair-minded and benign view of the subject to bring about an intense audience response. “Boy Erased” pulls out more emotional stops and without cheap sentiment. The film is based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, which was adapted by Edgerton. (The characters’ names have been changed in the movie version.) It is told in the currently fashionable non-linear style, intercutting the experiences of Jared (Hedges) at the “Love in Action” conversion center with the experiences in high school and college that led him to be there. The family scenes are rendered fairly and delicately. Jared’s father (Crowe) is an Arkansas pastor, and his wife (Kidman) is also a devout Christian. They clearly love their son. The father seems to have some sexual identity issues of his own, though this is one element that might have been highlighted a bit more clearly. The other characters at this center are sharply delineated and well acted. Rock musician Flea oozes menace as one of the harsh group leaders, and the other kids in the program — played by Xavier Dolan, Britton Sear, Jesse Latourette, Troye Sivan and others give texture to the film’s portrait of this kind of indoctrination program. The kids respond in very differently—-some try to fall in line, others resist and there are others who keep their own counsel. There are some disturbing scenes showing the kids abused by the counselors, but there are other moments of surprising tenderness.
Hedges demonstrated his skill in supporting roles in several other films (especially “Manchester by the Sea”), but here he carries the entire show and is excellent. He is alternately frightened, bewildered and defiant. Crowe wonderfully captures the single-mindedness of a religious zealot, along with genuine concern for his son. Kidman’s journey involves her not simply accepting her son but also recognizing her own subjugation in a male-dominated community. When she apologizes to her son for her complicity in bending to her husband and the other men in town, her confession is wrenching as both a gay-positive and feminist statement, timely on both counts without being overstated.
Edgerton’s Sykes as the true villain of the movie. He’s twisted and self-loathing and has an obvious love of violence and control bubbling under the transparent veneer of compassion. As with so many of the most zealous homophobes, we wonder if he has a few secrets hidden in the closet.
Jared’s relationship with his father is more complex and harder to resolve Edgerton’s career as a filmmaker hits a whole new level with this sophomore effort. It is the aim of the film to influence the debate on gay conversion therapy that is still unresolved in many parts of the country and it does that well. It is also a humanistic, emotionally touching drama. It is special for me because I was aware of Love in Action having lived in Arkansas for seven years after Hurricane Katrina. I did not know Gerrard Conley then but I remember hearing about his book before it was published and I devoured it in one sitting. I cannot emphasize how important this film is and we are so lucky that it is as wonderful as it is.