In the aftermath of a violent sexual assault and forcibly outed as gay Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is sent to a church-supported gay conversion program by his Baptist preacher father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman). They believe renewing Jared’s faith in God will cure him of his sinful urges. Jared is left to fight for his freedom in the face of impossible odds.
Boy Erased is based on journalist Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name published in 2016 about the twelve days he spent at a Love In Action facility, where adolescent boys and girls are treated for homosexuality which is seen as a sin against God. Yes, it’s a religious practice that is still widespread across America, even today. Absurd, but a very real danger to vulnerable children with hardline Christian parents who have a dogmatic belief in the Bible. Wading into the mire of sexual identity, paternal love and faith, writer-director Joel Edgerton crafts a thought-provoking drama and yet one that stumbles just a little bit in its execution, perhaps it’s not hard-hitting enough.
We meet Jared as a happy and confident bright-eyed boy in a flurry of VHS home-video clips, who dreams of being a motorcycle rider. Then, flash-forward to a close-up of Jared’s (Hedges) dark teenage face, brimming with trauma. A stoney silence fills the Eamons dinner table, Marshall (Crowe) and Nancy (Kidman) share a troubled look, as if their son were a criminal. With little explanation, Jared is driven by his mother to a nondescript and secure building, stripped of his keys, wallet, phone, and quizzed on the contents of his notebook filled with harmless stories. In a large auditorium head therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton) welcomes Jared to a group of teenagers, all outcasts in the eyes of the Lord because of their homosexual behaviour. Sykes yells emphatically everyone of them will be saved and made heterosexual again…
There’s a frankly comical air to the rehabilitation process, as tattooed ex-con Brandon (Flea, yes, the bass player from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) teaches the boys to be more masculine, adjusting their posture by having them make a “manly triangle” with their hands on their hips, with the mantra “Fake it till you make it” ringing in their ears. It’s clear lunacy. But underneath the retrograde gender stereotypes there is a bewildering sense of powerlessness that gets under your skin. Jared and his group are pitted against each other (no touching, talking or sitting together) in an almost Orwellian way. It’s distressing to watch. Then, we flashback to the events that brought Jared to Love In Action, climaxing with a brutal rape scene in his college dorm room. Unflinchingly filmed by Edgerton in a medium shot, no music, just the sound of Jared’s muffled screams and the creaks of the bunk bed.
The horrific sexual assault casts a long shadow over the rest of the film. But it’s so briefly handled, we never find out if the rapist ever faced criminal charges. Or, if that was Jared’s first sexual encounter with a man: what lasting damage did it have on his relationship with men? Questions answered in the memoir, most likely. After Jared’s outing at the hands of his abuser nothing feels as raw or debilitating. He’s a smart kid, seeing the total fallacy of Sykes’s belief in a bad relationship with your father turns you gay, and just a few typos (Dog loves you) in the Love In Action handbook. Frustratingly, the real drama is between Jared and his classmates; it is hinted their fate will be much worse if they can’t prove they are cured. But the scenes at the program are too fleeting, characters seem to just come and go, and the clumsy and overwrought staging of a mock-funeral for a relapsed student falls a bit short because of it.
Edgerton’s eye leans towards a Hollywoodified version of Conley’s memoir, soft moody lighting, locked off shots, melancholic original song, in an effort to make the grim reality of gay conversion therapy palatable for a wider audience. The film lacks a sense of real urgency, as the story does sound oddly provincial in the not so long ago era of first-generation iPods and SideKick mobile phones. Yes, the cast give fine performances (they’re all in the Oscar club) finding a light humour and charm amongst the most dire of circumstances, and Nicole Kidman (Dolly Parton-like and fragile) is on top form here, being the emotional anchor the film clearly needs. Without a doubt, Marshall and Nancy Eamons were utterly misguided in their attempts to help their son. Luckily for Jared, progressive thinking prevailed. Sadly many more teenagers are still fighting for their lives…
Boy Erased is a timely and thought-provoking drama that highlights the pit falls of blind faith and the detrimental effects of gay conversion therapy. But the film feels a little too safe and polished for its own good.