Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, Boy Erased recounts his stay in a conversion therapy center (religious and/or pseudo-scientific institutions whose goal is to turn gay people straight) in 2004 after coming out to his religious family at 19 years old.
While very much an adaptation of Conley’s real story, the film chooses to change some names. Here, we follow Jared, played by Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By The Sea”, “Lady Bird”), who accepts to enter the conversion program of Love In Action (a real “ex-gay” ministry) after being pushed by his father, a stern pastor played by Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”, “Les Misérables”) and his mother played by Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”, “Aquaman”).
The film fluctuates between the so-called therapy and flashbacks of Jared’s life, from his closeted teenage years to his first year at college in which a terrible event – he is raped by his best friend there, played by Joe Alwyn (“The Favourite”, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”) – sparks his coming out and willingness to put himself through the conversion program.
The present-day scenes in the program are the most compelling and effective of the film. Writer-director Joel Edgerton (“The Gift”), who also plays Love In Action’s leader Victor Sykes (based on the real John Smid, now out of the ministry and married to his husband), uses slow-motion, sentimental music and a drab color palette to recreate the lifeless, isolating building in which all of this takes place. While these dramatic conventions do get annoying after the first hour, they work incredibly well when we are introduced to the story and the first methods of conversion.
One of these methods is forcing the men to pose “in a triangle shape” (deemed the most masculine of all the shapes) by the manly ex-convict who teaches “how to be a real man” sessions (the ex-convict is played by Flea, the founding member of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers who was also seen in “Baby Driver” or “Song to Song”). This scene could have easily been played for comedy, but the film never undermines how serious and traumatic this is for the participants who are constantly derided, their shame and inability to fit in put on display for everyone to see.
The participants of the program is another strong point of the film: they are men and women of all ages, and while none of their stories are fully explored, it is easy to see and imagine what led them here and how willing they were to participate. Among them, two notable actors: Xavier Dolan (most known as the director of “Mommy” but who also acted in his own “I Killed My Mother” and “Tom at the Farm”), who here plays a recidivist of the program so hell-bent on success that he refuses any physical contact with another man; and Troye Sivan, the famous pop singer who also co-wrote and sings the main song of the film. The eclectic star-studded cast can unfortunately be a little distracting, especially Troye Sivan who doesn’t fade into his role as much as the rest. The main trio (Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe), on the other hand, don’t shine as much as expected but still bring their talent to the table.
Unfortunately, the film has a harmful flaw, and it is ironically its focus on Love In Action itself. Boy Erased wallows in homophobia and never counterbalances it with a positive portrayal of homosexuality. As mentioned above, Jared is raped by a friend while in college – a brutal scene that the camera never turns away from – but neither the consequences of this event or the healing of this wound are shown on-screen. Instead, it is only presented at what sparks Jared to come out and, implicitly, to accept the conversion program; nothing more.
Most damaging of all is the lack of affection, kisses, and/or a healthy sexuality between men throughout the film. In several interviews, Joel Edgerton has mentioned that he made Boy Erased for the parents who believed in conversion therapy, to tell them that it wasn’t the right choice. But what message will this movie give them if the only sexual interaction they see between two men is a rape scene? This will only further their preconceived ideas that “gay sex is disgusting”, “gay men are rapists”, and “if my son is gay he will be raped and depressed”.
Last year, I reviewed “The Miseducation of Cameron Post“, a film that tackled the same subject albeit based on a fictional story that took place in the 1990s (unfortunately, the ten years gap between the two films is barely felt when it comes to the methods used or prevalence of the ‘therapy’). While I think Boy Erased is more effective at showing conversion therapy and beneficiates from a bigger budget (and therefore better production value), The Miseducation of Cameron Post succeeded best in crafting a story that cared for its characters and aimed to find hope and happiness rather than fixate on the negative. In this way, both films are equally important and can complement each other, but in the end it is up to what you would rather see: a dramatic condemnation of conversion therapy or a coming-of-age story that uses it as a backdrop more than its focus.