Given there is no scientific, therapeutic or spiritual legitimacy (or any logic for that matter) to gay conversion therapy as a practice, the fact that it even exists should be reason enough to make you mad. With Boy Erased, Australian director Joel Edgerton explores gay conversion therapy through the experiences of a teenager forced to endure the bullying and bluster of such a program at the whim of his vile parents who, like so many other narrow-minded numbskulls, use their religious faith as justification for homophobia and hatred. If you don’t come away from the film seething at the knowledge that such characters and attitudes exist in real life and that thousands of young people are forced to endure the humiliations that Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) experiences, then you seriously need to check your head (and your heart).
If the fact that Jared’s coming out is predicated by an act of malice at the hands of the person who sexually assaulted him at college isn’t bad enough, the reaction of Jared’s parents – Baptist preacher Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his Stepford-ish wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman) – is appalling. Marshall is the type of Christian who gives the faithful a bad name; narrow-minded and incapable of any independent thought that might challenge or contradict the doctrine that feeds his ignorance and intolerance. Unable to accept the reality of his son’s sexuality, Marshall insists Jared take part in a gay conversion program run by the ludicrously and (dangerously) delusional Victor Sykes (Edgerton). It is to his credit that Edgerton took on the role himself rather than burden another actor with such a despicable character. If the film is accurate in its portrayal of what transpires in such programs, it is unfathomable that anybody could possibly believe that this ‘therapy’ has any validity whatsoever. In fact, at one point, fellow attendee Gary (Troy Sivane) tells Jared to pretend it is working so he can get through it and move on with his life while, eventually, even Nancy comes to the realisation that it is all a bunch of codswallop, although it comes too late to deliver any sort of redemption for a character whose silent complicity makes her every bit as culpable as her deranged husband.
Having already established himself as a young performer of considerable talent in the likes of Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Hedges is wonderful once again as the conflicted teen whose emotional and psychological well-being is sacrificed in the interests of those whose belief systems are dictated by dogma at the expense of humanity. With Edgerton necessarily focussing on Jared’s trajectory, other characters are given somewhat short shrift and there is no doubt that there are plenty more stories to be told about others who have endured the indignity of such programs that, as the tragic plight of one character reminds us, do much more harm than good. Given that the film has been adapted from a memoir of the same name by Garrard Comley, Boy Erased should make you angry; not angry about the movie or the people in it, but angry about the harm these so-called treatments have inflicted on young people and the fact that they continue to operate with impunity.
Despite the star power of Kidman and Crowe, they are both very much in the shadow of a stellar performance from Hedges. Edgerton is despicably effective as Sykes and Sivan is quietly impressive, with Xavier Dolan also featuring as Jon, a fellow participant in the program who hasn’t touched another person in over 20 days, such is his fear of ‘relapsing’. As an ex-con engaged by Sykes to scare the gayness out of his subjects, Flea certainly looks the part and is quite convincing, while it is Jared’s doctor (Cherry Jones) who is the only adult to tell Jared that he is perfectly normal. Following in the footsteps of Desiree Akhavan’s similarly themed The Miseducation of Cameron Post, this is an important film that sheds light onto a practice that seems completely out of touch with contemporary thinking.