“Boy Erased” The Horror of Gay Conversion Therapy Amos Lassen When “Boy Erased” begins, weget the idea that Arkansas teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) hasa great life. We see Jared being shepherded by his Christian mother, Nancy(Nicole Kidman), to a gay conversion organization and it becomes clear that thewhat we saw in in the home movies is no longer the case. Instead of workingtheir differences, Jared and his family are on a path to denying them and thecloset door swings shut. Jared is the delight of his mother and Baptist preacher father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), until, he’s forced to grapple with his same-sex longings in the worst of ways. Henry (Joe Alwyn) who is Jared’s crush sexually assaults him at college. Then Henry calls Nancy and effectively outs Jared. Because Marshall wields the most power in the family, and has the biggest reputation to uphold, the path forward for his son is clear: change or be disowned. There are other choices, of course,and the film follows Jared’s protracted awakening to the fact that his sexualidentity is not an abomination. He acts as witness and journalist, observingthe often absurd ways that the conversion facility, run by the self-assuredVictor Sykes (director Joel Edgerton), attempts to meet its impossible goal oferadicating queerness. We see a very particular kind of stupidity and sadism under the guise of levelheaded certainty. We can laugh at this until the perpetrators set their sights on us, a state of affairs epitomized by the counselor (Flea) whose overcompensating machismo is laughable, right up to the point he gets Jared alone in a bathroom, blocking the door and yells “faggot” at him. It’s as if the counselors want their charges to underestimate them. Here, ridiculously twisted logic and sanity-upending exercises come into play. Jared’sfellow converts-to-be include Jon (Xavier Dolan), who’s masochistically inthrall to the program, and Gary (Troye Sivan), a repeat offender who gets offon telling Sykes and his colleagues his stories. It’s a lot of fun watching a movie star likeKidman playing the small-town—though finally not small-minded—parent that everygay child wishes they had. Together, the characters function like a Greekchorus, along with Kidman’s Nancy, whose eye-rolls increase with the conversionprogram. More serious notes are sounded with thecharacter of Cameron (Britton Sear), a portly, quiet boy who’s made an exampleof with a mock funeral at which his own family members attempt to beat the gayout of him. He also, at a late stage, acts as Jared’s protector. Jared himselfis lost in the spectacle of godly devotion taken to injurious extremes is Jaredhimself, who becomes more emblematic as the melodrama reaches its peak.Hedgesis excellent as the tortured teen but he is also too much of a cipher for hisstory to really hit with the force that it should. Hereluctantly agrees to but is not prepared for the program that will try to makehim a “Boy Erased.”
Edgerton makes his feature film directing debut and also adapted “Boy Erased”,Garrard Conley’s memoir, and produces and co-stars as the Refuge Program head,Victor Sykes. His focus, though, is on Jared and the turmoil, confusion, angerand bewilderment he goes through because of his parents’ betrayal to their son.
The adaptation is a sanitized look at “conversion therapy,” a method that tearsdown any individuality (like sexual preference) and replaces it withpolitically correct thoughts and behavior. The problem is, it does not workand, as Edgerton shows, it causes far more harm, socially and emotionally, thanit helps.
We see the experience through Jared’s eyes as he is forced to submit to the“re-education,” which includes constant surveillance and everything but actualphysical abuse. Hedges proves to be a capable young actor and holds the film’sfocus, conveying the confusion, feeling of betrayal and anger at both theRefuge Program and his parents. The other inmates and jailors we meet are twodimensional, with one exception, Troye Sivan as a savvy inmate who counselsJared on survival. Conversion therapy is far different from organizations likeAA that help people with real addiction problems. I have never consideredsexual gender preference a pressing social issue and the inmates of thoseconversion therapy programs probably agree. In the film’s opening, we learnJared is the son of Baptist minister Marshall Eamons and lives a comfortablelife in a loving home. When he asks if he can go to a party at the lake,his beaming parents send him off with his girlfriend but Jared stifles hersexual advances, quietly breaking off their relationship as he heads tocollege. Fellow student and runner Henry takes him under his wing, butwhen Jared invites Henry back to his dorm, Henry comes on to him. Aconfused Jared is raped, Henry breaking down in shame, begging for forgivenessafterwards.
When confronted, Jared initially denies everything, but in revealing he knowswho made the call, he eventually admits his attraction to men. Hisparents are stunned. The pastor calls in religious elders who recommendLove in Action. Family physician Dr. Muldoon (Cherry Jones) gently triesto tell him he’s perfectly normal, but Jared says he wants to change.
The rules at Love in Action (a prudish dress code, sobriety, no cell phone orjournals, even supervised bathroom visits to prevent masturbation) immediatelyrub Jared the wrong way. Center head Victor Sykes initially seems to say the right things, butthe first exercise he gives Jared’s group is to link family members to a listof sins including alcoholism, homosexuality, drug addiction and gang membership. Nothing that happens within Love inAction’s walls may be discussed with anyone, including the parents who arepaying for its treatment. Homosexuality may be against her religiousbeliefs, but Nancy, who is sharing a hotel room with her son during histherapy, begins to pick up bad vibes. Eventually Jared shares hisexercise binder with her. She’s initially amused, telling him of her drugdealing gang past, but when Jared reaches his breaking point, Nancy’s there tosupport him, denouncing Sykes as a fraud and apologizing to her son for havinggone along with the plan, her mother’s love stronger than her Baptist beliefs.Now they must both face the pastor.