OK, y’all. Listen. This country has a fucking problem with gay conversion therapy. You know it, I know it, anybody plugged in knows it. In 1995, Mr. Show had one of their most bitterly hilarious skits about the failures of gay conversion with the What To Think network. Again in 2007, the mainstream South Park satirized gay conversion camp when they sent Butters to camp in a misunderstanding. Parker and Stone acknowledged the horror, guilt and hypocrisy while still delivering a bitterly funny episode of tortured gay kids killing themselves to escape the camp. The heterosexuals know gay conversion is bullshit.
Unbelievably, in 2018, gay conversion therapy is still legal in 36 states. And so, we get two movies about gay conversion therapy: The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased. These are two dramatically different movies and not just because one is about a lesbian while the other is about a gay dude. Miseducation is a movie made by a bisexual woman for queer-friendly young adults to ponder their life as rebellion. Boy Erased is an advocacy film made by and for straight people not hip enough to watch South Park. Boy Erased is for the Christians who advocate for gay conversion therapy.
If you’re queer, it’s hard to have escaped the horror stories of gay conversion therapy and failings. Chances are, if you’re gay, you’ve already heard everything in this movie that isn’t made for us. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the masc4masc ideal of an All American boy: he’s an intelligent religious athlete who loves and respects his mother and father. As we all know from watching Stonewall, this is the character type designed to appeal to heternormative middle America by breaking them of their pre-conceived notions that homosexuality means you’re automatically a nancy boy. More importantly, this puts the emphasis on the societal abuse impartially heaped on homosexuals regardless of personality, preventing these cretins from hiding behind their latent misogyny by saying “I’d appreciate gays more if they weren’t so femme.”
Sadly, that means that Jared is a boring blank everyboy upon whom we can project our own details (even moreso than in Stonewall). Did you have religious parents who may have thought they were doing their best for you? Did you have to fight their disappointment? Did you grow up with guilt from not living up to their expectations? Was your mother more accepting of you while your dad took a while if he did at all? Congratulations, you can push your identity onto Jared, a bland gay dude masculine enough for the masc-identified crowd and insecure enough for the femme-identified crowd. Despite a strong performance from Lucas Hedges creating magic out of air, Jared’s the most boring part of Boy Erased.
Jared has to go to gay conversion therapy where he’s taught that heterosexuals are love and marriage while gays are alcoholics and rapists. The way you know this movie wasn’t made by us for us is that Edgerton neither goes hard on the gay conversion therapy nor feels a need to balance the horrors of therapy with a truly healthy gay relationship anywhere in the movie. Jared’s first crush, hunky Henry (Joe Alwyn), actually climbs down from his bunk and tries to violently rape Jared before a next door neighbor pounds on the wall and tells them to keep it down. His second crush, the more secure Xavier (Xavier Dolan), is perfectly content to chastely hold hands with the insecure younger boy as they drift off to sleep. Even as the gay conversion therapy teaches us that heteros are love and gays are rapists, the actual text re-emphaisizes this. The movie’s epilogue goes four years into the future and we still never see a healthy gay sexual relationship. There isn’t so much as a romantic kiss to confront middle America.
This movie isn’t for us. And I’m kind of OK with that. This is a movie for our parents.
A movie for us would focus on the bleach blond Gary (Troye Sivan) who has figured out the system and knows how to play the game. His attitude is “you have to fake it til you make it.” Miseducation centers Cameron Post and her friends to empathize with the coping approaches of faking it, rebellion and the terror of conformity. Boy Erased centers Jared and his family to educate on the conflicts religion creates when it comes to family, love and acceptance. Cameron has to create her own family out of the misfits who refuse to be tamed. Jared has to confront the family he has by blood out of tradition. If Cameron’s story is the interior of our journey, then Jared’s story is the consequence of their journey.
That’s not to say that Boy Erased is a bad movie. Far from it. Edgerton’s naturalistic approach marries strongly with Hedges’ naturalistic performance. Edgerton’s formalist flourishes along with his patient storytelling creates an atmosphere where Christians who fear us can come to see that we’re human and we face the very terrors they preach against. The heterosexual sensitivity is emphasized by the new song Revelation by Troye Sivan and Jonsi (from Sigur Ros), a song which owes so much of its existence to Goo Goo Dolls’ Iris (from City of Angels), I swore I’d turned it off hundreds of times back in the mid-to-late 90s.
This isn’t the first queer movie that was made about us but not for us. There’s a long tradition of making advocacy movies about gay rights for straight audiences dating back to the John Erman’s 1985 TV movie An Early Frost. In a later interview, Erman, who is gay, said he knew that he was making the movie for his parents so they would “be able to see this movie and not be threatened.” He said his “taste level became ‘Would my parents approve of this?'” While queer audiences derided An Early Frost for being chaste and for hetero audiences, it nonetheless had the ability to reach out and build bridges.
For much of the first act of Boy Erased, Edgerton and queer audiences knows that Jared is gay (because that’s the story of the movie), but he tells the story so that the audience might question whether Jared is actually gay right up until he actually comes out. He doesn’t want to alienate the hetero middle American audience. Edgerton is giving film critics the opportunity to pull the rug out from Middle America by saying this is about a victim of queer rape who gets caught up in gay conversion camp.
Is the film regressive in a way? Yeah. It doesn’t show happy queerness and reinforces some misbeliefs that queerness = struggle and misery. I would never schedule this for a gay film festival. Boy Erased is not for us. But, Boy Erased talks to straight people on their terms. That’s a different audience.