Directed by Joel Edgerton
Written by Joel Edgerton (screenplay) and Garrard Conley (memoir)
Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Joel Edgerton, and Russell Crowe
Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA rating: R
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
“Jared, God will not love you the way that you are.” These words, emphatically delivered by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), an impassioned lead facilitator at a gay conversion therapy center, carry so much conviction, so much weighty concern. His “helpful” directive is aimed at Jared Eamons, our boy of note in Boy Erased, played with nuance and sensitivity by Lucas Hedges (Mid90s, Lady Bird, Ben is Back). The thing is, young Jared doesn’t yet know who he is. Does God still love us, even if we haven’t figured ourselves out yet? If there is a benevolent God like the one Western religions claim, wouldn’t it love us no matter what?
This is just one of the ideas director Edgerton embraces in Boy Erased. Based on a memoir by Garrard Conley about his experience in a Christian gay conversion program, the film addresses the horror inflicted on those participating in such programs. I don’t know what’s scarier: that conversion therapy exists at all and subjects people to very dangerous, negative self-criticism, or that the families sending their children to these programs and the people running them do so because they think it actually helps. It’s this latter idea that becomes a main theme trickling through Boy Erased like water from a slow tap. Whereas The Miseducation of Cameron Post, yes, the other gay conversion movie this year, focuses mostly on how people living in these situations cope, Boy Erased puts more of a spotlight on the people around Jared - we get to know a little about some of his fellow “students,” the people running the therapy center, and most importantly, we get to hear from his parents. What say you, Mr. and Mrs. Eamons?
What Jared’s parents have to say, well, it’s not very much. At least, it’s much of what you would expect from a conservative family in Arkansas. Dad, Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe, his Nice Dad transformation 96% complete) is a pastor at their church and also runs a local Ford dealership. His wife, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), her golden hair helmet ready for battle wherever she goes, appears to enjoy the sparklier things in life, like bedazzled jackets and Chico’s jewelry. Jared, from what we get to witness, is just, bless his heart, such a good kid. He trusts his parents, appearing to even like them, respect them. He has a girlfriend but, you know…he has a girlfriend (insert noncommittal shrug here). He’s pretty sporty and is on the basketball team at school. He isn’t “out” nor does he display any signs that anyone could point to and say, “There! You’re gay!” It isn’t until college that he starts to put things together for himself, slowly, delicately. For some watching, this could be seen as painstaking or slightly confusing - where are all the telltale gay movie signs?
Boy Erased isn’t gonna give those to you, at least not outright, in ways you may have seen in other films featuring gay characters or coming out sagas. I get why this would be puzzling for many. I didn’t come out until I was 36; being gay wasn’t immediately obvious to me or others, nor was coming out one big, dramatic revelation. It happened in subtle pieces. Because I was older when things started to make sense to me, I sometimes feel like I’ll never be “gay enough” even though deep down I know “gay enough” isn’t a real thing just like being gay isn’t a choice; “gay enough” is just another bullshit way of keeping myself down. Jared’s trajectory felt familiar to me - he doesn’t completely know himself in the first two-thirds of the film; while he thinks he has an idea, he is just feeling things out, slowly, on his own terms. I had a similar idea for many, many years, but couldn’t be sure. And I was too afraid to face it head on, until I just couldn’t ignore it anymore. Unfortunately, Jared doesn’t have that luxury. He is outed rather chillingly by a predator at his university, forced to confront things much faster than he would have, and much more openly with his parents.
While watching Boy Erased, I was waiting for more. More of what? More of….everything. Much of the story unfolds non-linearly, which makes for more interesting viewing but can also be vexing at times. Jared and his mother sign in at the conversion therapy center before we get any context behind why they’re there, or what has led Jared to this point. Characters appear more as sketches to shuttle us between plot points or to help guide us into understanding what Jared might be dealing with. Mr. and Mrs. Eamons appear to be composite mom and dad characters - what else do we learn about them besides they are heavily tied to their faith, they love their son, and they love the latest mall fashions? I found myself so distracted at times by Mrs. Eamon’s glittery wardrobe, trying to dissect just WHAT leopard print monstrosity she was wearing from scene to scene (more than one animal magnetism piece of clothing appears in this film) that it took me right out of the story. Maybe because this is Nicole Kidman we’re talking about and it’s such an interesting departure for her (wait til you see her in Destroyer), I couldn’t stay focused when she was onscreen. Towards the end of the film, you’ll applaud Mrs. Eamons’ woke-ness however Mr. Eamons remains an enigma. He is a man of his faith, he likes Ford vehicles, he is conflicted about his son’s homosexuality…and that’s about all I got. Same goes with the folks at the conversion treatment center - we get one person who leans far into it, another who’s faking it until he makes it, and another who completely breaks under the weight of what he’s being “taught” by the powers that be. Other than that….I didn’t learn much about who these people are, where they come from, what they think or feel. It’s a disservice to the film and the story, because I wanted to feel so much more yet was left feeling very little.
Don’t get me wrong - the film is powerful in other ways. Many of the scenes with Jared in the group sessions are absolutely frightening. At one point, Jared’s very future hangs in the hands of Victor Sykes, who believes Jared should leave college immediately and spend a year living on-site, with no real reasoning as to why. Jared and the boys are taught by a homophobic aggressor (played with much effect by Flea, believe it or not) how to be a “real man” - how to properly sit, talk, play sports, deal with emotions in anger. But Jared isn’t necessarily effeminate. Sykes argues that being gay is a choice and their same sex attraction is learned behavior in response to the shameful activities of their family members. But Jared’s family lacks the gamblers, alcoholics, adulterers, etc. that Sykes and company would blame. Reading between the lines, Boy Erased puts forth the suggestion that not only is this type of therapy extremely dangerous for young people, but also very expensive, and there is much money to be made. Jared very quickly sees the writing on the wall and fights his way out, and if this wasn’t based on a memoir, the story could have easily veered in a more sinister direction. A brilliant scene with Cherry Jones (love her) as a doctor tasked by Mr. Eamons to check Jared’s testosterone levels perfectly sums up the push-pull between faith and proven medical science. It’s not a choice. It isn’t a learned behavior. It’s not contagious. Edgerton chooses to play everything respectfully, sensitively - this isn’t necessarily a film that’s preaching to the choir, it’s preaching to people like Mr. and Mrs. Eamons, who may have LGBT children, and love God, but aren’t always sure how to put those two together. Edgerton’s message to these folks is simple: it’s time to catch up.