Gay Conversion therapy is legal in thirty-six states, according to the end titles of Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased. If you need any further proof that this is an abomination, Boy Erased demonstrates this in the most matter-of-fact way possible, all the better to let the full horror sink in.
Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, Edgerton’s screenplay for Boy Erased begins with Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) driving her son Jared (Lucas Hedges) to his first appointment with an organization called Love in Action (LIA) in a town some distance from their home. Jared’s father Marshall (Russell Crowe), a car dealer and Baptist minister, did not make the trip, but it is largely at his insistence that Jared attends the program.
Once at LIA headquarters, Nancy is told to come back at 5 p.m. to pick up Jared. Jared is assured that the spirit of love is all-encompassing at LIA; simultaneously, his cell phone and other personal effects are confiscated.
Jared is ushered into an assembly room with a couple of dozen other young people, mostly but not all boys. There, LIA leader Victor Sykes (Edgerton) leaves no doubt as to what’s in store for them. Homosexuality, Sykes tells them, is not innate; it is due to bad parenting plus estrangement from God. Sykes orders his charges not to tell anyone what goes on in LIA sessions, and also orders them to make harsh “moral inventories” listing their sins. The moral inventories include family trees in which pupils are commanded to identify the sins committed by their relatives, including drug use, alcoholism, prison time, domestic violence and gang membership as well as homosexuality.
The film flashes back to how Jared was brought to LIA in the first place: at college, he is raped by classmate Henry (Joe Alwyn), who then tearfully confesses to raping another boy. Jared flees back home, where Henry, pretending to be a counselor, phones Jared’s parents anonymously with accusations against Jared. Henry apparently hopes to ensure Jared’s silence this way; instead, Jared is forced to confess to being gay.
Meanwhile, the pressure steadily builds at LIA. Jared originally is told that LIA is a 12-day session, but soon discovers his stay there is open-ended, and that he might be forced to move into onsite housing if Sykes is not satisfied his conversion therapy has worked. Counselor Brandon (Flea), an ex-con whom Sykes praises as a paragon of real manhood, drills his charges ferociously in baseball batting practice and “manly” posture. Jared’s LIA classmates react in varying ways to the program. One of them, Jon (Xavier Dolan), in the program for a second time, is so determined to become straight this time that he is afraid to even touch another boy. Another, Gary (Troye Sivan), urges Jared to “play the part.”
Meanwhile, Nancy starts dipping into LIA study materials, and is appalled by the misspellings, grammatical errors and questionable psychology she finds therein. Matters don’t reach a head, however, until the barbaric treatment Sykes metes out to Jared’s classmate Cameron (Britton Sear). I will leave it to you to discover what that is.
What becomes obvious during the course of Boy Erased is that LIA operates under anything other than the spirit of love. If Sykes’ officious bullying doesn’t clue you in, Brandon’s confrontation with Jared in a men’s room certainly will. Sykes, Brandon and their colleagues loathe Jared and their other charges, regarding them as “faggots” and minions of Satan. Their hatred is based solely on self-hatred and self-delusion, as a note about the future life of Sykes in the end credits makes plain.
Boy Erased is so understated that some critics have accused it of lacking fire. I disagree. To my mind, the film’s plainness makes it all the more powerful. Boy Erased takes place in a milieu of prosperous homes, upright citizens, and a rocklike belief in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. It is this moral and religious certainty, admitting not even the possibility of error, which allows abominations such as LIA to exist, as well as treacherous predators such as Henry and plaintive victims such as Cameron.
A gifted actor with a long and distinguished list of roles, Edgerton made a spectacular if underrated debut as a writer-director with The Gift, in which he co-starred with Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. Boy Erased is an impressive follow-up to The Gift, and its greatest glory is its cast. Lucas Hedges announced himself in Manchester by the Sea as one of the finest actors of his generation, and in Boy Erased he exceeds that achievement. Hedges has a clean, compelling honesty and an emotional directness rare in actors of any age. This stands him in good stead when working with genius-level actors such as Crowe, Kidman and Edgerton, and even more in his solo scenes. One of his most powerful moments is his reaction when—out running after a particularly harrowing day at LIA—he encounters a homoerotic poster advertising men’s cologne.
Kidman and Crowe bring a moving depth of feeling to the roles of Jared’s parents, making them anything but stereotypical monsters. Nancy and Marshall Eamons are not bad people by any means; they have simply been taught throughout their lives that a man can be only one thing, and are blindsided when their only son turns out to be something else. Nancy’s remorse comes quickly; as she tells Jared, she knew almost immediately that something was wrong with LIA, but went along as she always did with the church patriarchy. Marshall, as a member of that patriarchy, has a much harder time letting go of it, but there is no doubt that he loves and even admires his son.
As the enforcers of LIA, Edgerton and Flea are scary as hell. Among the victims (for victims they are) of LIA, Britton Sear is particularly moving as the hapless Cameron, as is Jesse LaTourette as Sarah, a girl quickly swallowed up by the LIA system.
At a time when the Vice President of the United States is an advocate of gay conversion therapy, the events of Boy Erased cannot be dismissed lightly. At the end of the film, the credits quote statistics that some 700,000 young people have been forced into gay conversion programs. What the credits don’t tell you, but which you can look up easily, is that the suicide rate among young LGBTQ people is triple that of the general population. The facts speak for themselves.