Gay conversion “therapy” is still legal in 36 states. I put therapy in quotes because the people who conduct therapy are, largely, not licensed therapists. The majority of “treatment” in these conversion camps is conducted by self-declared religious leaders who try to emotionally and physically abuse the gay out of queer youth and adults. The psychological community had condoned such treatment into the 1970s, marking homosexuality as a mental illness treatable by drugs and even electroshock therapy. In more recent years, this therapy takes the form of religious camps that utilize vicious treatment ranging from beatings and flagellation to feces inhalation. The self-doubt and self-loathing facilitated by these camps leads to depression and suicide.
Joel Edgerton’s new film, Boy Erased, is based on the true story of a college boy who survived gay conversion therapy and came out the other end as an LGBTQ activist. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the fictional counterpart of Garrard Conley, the son of a southern suburban fundamentalist preacher (Russell Crowe) and his devoted housewife and mother (Nicole Kidman). Through an opening home video montage, Jared grows up as a typical rough and tumble all-American boy; he plays baseball, runs track, does well enough in school, and even has a girlfriend he respects enough not to have sex before they’re married. Well, that last part isn’t necessarily an outgrowth of his religious upbringing…it may be because he’s gay and his girlfriend can’t even give him an erection. Through a series of unfortunate events, Jared is outed to his parents who respond by sending him to pray-away-the-gay camp.
At first glance, camp leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) teaches traditional gender roles and forces a reconciliation between sinful desire and the natural order of things. Immediately upon arrival, Jared comes face to face with Michael (David Joseph Craig), a graduate so dedicated to his reorientation that he returned to strictly intake incoming patients by confiscating journal, cell phones and other connections to independent thought and the outside world. Yet Michael can’t hide his homosexual behaviors. Red flags upon red flags pile up, ranging from manly outings to batting cages with an ex-con (Flea) to arranged beatings by patients’ families.
Interlaced with the increasingly abusive camp, we learn Jared’s backstory through extended backstories. The first is his hunky running partner Henry (Joe Alwyn), a fellow Christian who attends one of those new-fangled Rock-n-Roll churches that runs antithetical to Jared’s cloistered religious experience. Later, Jared is drawn to Xavier (Xavier Dolan), a visiting artist who tries to lead Jared to be comfortable in his own identity. They sleep together in the chaste fully-clothed sense of mentor-tutor, holding hands all night long.
Edgerton (The Gift) takes a naturalistic approach to the horrors of gay conversion therapy, using subtle lighting and shadows to emphasize the terrorism being played out in full daylight. Rather than shoving your face in the full horrific range of therapies, Edgerton plays the scenes with subtle menace letting the audience realize, deep within their bones, that the therapy is psychically damaging even if it may come from the genuine (or not-so-genuine) belief that heterosexuality is normative. Edgerton respects his actors enough to allow their terror to play through subtle background movements and facial tics. Lucas Hedges has a range that allows him to play a conflicted young male who slowly figures out and accepts his sexuality and body through a range of experiences forcing him to confront his religion and his happiness. He is met by Nicole Kidman who gives subtly blunt performance as the southern wife who has to face her own attitudes and subservience to her husband.
The full story isn’t just about gay conversion therapy, but about acceptance and family. Not only does Jared have to make a decision between his releigion and his sexuality but his religion is complicated by his family and he has to come face to face with his preacher father. Similarly, his mother has to decide between her son and her husband and religion, and his father has to decide between his religion and his family. At the heart of Boy Erased is a family story about the conflict when the reality of sexuality confronts the beliefs of the church. It’s a sensitive treatment that looks the audience straight in the eye and asks if you’re OK with this.