BOY ERASED is the story of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), a nineteen-year-old college student from Arkansas who is gay, but hides it from his parents. His mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is a hairdresser. His father Marshall is a car dealer and Baptist preacher. Jared spent his high school years as a successful student and athlete with a cheerleader girlfriend. Leaving home for college has allowed him to have fleeting sexual contact with other young men. He has an internal struggle because according to his church and his family, his homosexuality is a choice and a sin. According to that world view, he is damned and has turned away from God. Keeping up the disguise of well-adjusted heterosexual keeps him safe from judgement. He isn’t ready to be open about his sexuality.
A series of events forces Jared to come out to his parents. Their reaction is to persuade him to join a “gay conversion” program called Love in Action run by a man called Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton). Love in Action requires that the mostly young people who join the program, spend twelve days in a facility that seems like a minimum security prison. The program participants are not permitted their cell phones or any outside contact from 9am to 5pm. Many of these youngsters have travelled there with their parents who are kept separate from their kids during the day. At night, when the participants are allowed to leave, they are required to do homework. This involves investigating the reasons, behaviours and the people in their lives that have led to their “sinful” homosexuality. They are warned to not discuss the program with anyone else. Jared is taken to Love in Action by Nancy, who stays in a nearby hotel during the day. She is not comfortable with the rule that she can’t discuss her son’s progress with him.
The film shows us the day-to-day activities of the program. To those in the audience who don’t see a sin in the first place, the haranguing, manipulation and bullying that the participants experience is hard to watch. The adults employed by the program use their power and influence to break down the psychological defences of young people and persuade them that what they feel is completely wrong. They are criticised for their speech, their choice of clothing, their gestures and the way they walk. Who they are is under sustained attack by these people, paid by their parents. They are told the love of Christ and their families will be lost if they continue to “choose” homosexuality.
Jared finds the pressure building and is unsure of what he should do. There is the possibility of being sent to an even more intense version of this therapy. He wonders if he should just pretend the process is working. Ironically, this too, runs counter to what he was taught by his parents. How can one be honest and true to oneself, when that self is rejected by your family and church?
This is Australian Joel Edgerton’s second feature film as director. He also co-produced and wrote the screenplay based on writer Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name. Apart from a few flashbacks, the timeline is straightforward and the story-telling choices are, too. As one might expect, the performances this experienced actor elicits from his cast are uniformly strong. Lucas Hedges, in the lead, has impressed with his supporting roles in films like LADY BIRD (2017) and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016). Here he manages to combine vulnerability and strength into a convincing portrayal of a young man who is utterly on his own but determined to keep himself together. Kidman and Crowe do fine work as the mother and father. Crowe, in particular, presents a different aspect to his work with his performance here. Canada’s Théodore Pellerin does a nice job as a young visual artist. Theatre veteran, Cherry Jones, has a welcome cameo as a doctor. Singer and actor Troye Sivan appears in a small role as a program participant and adds to the “secret Australian” component of the movie. Like Christopher Nolan and the many Brit thesps hidden in his movies, Edgerton has placed a number of Aussies here, which is entertaining for us, but has no real bearing on what is definitely an American independent film and story.
Edgerton took his lead from Conley’s book, and the author himself, in creating a film that attempts to explain this world even-handedly, rather than demonising anyone. As part of his research process, Russell Crowe met Conley’s father and went to a Baptist service led by him. The purpose of the book and its film adaptation is to bring further awareness to the concept of gay conversion therapy. Conley went through his experience in 2004. An estimated 700,000 people, many of them teens, have been subjected to gay conversion in the United States. Unfortunately, the alleged therapy continues to this day.
BOY ERASED is an intense drama that asks you to re-think how love keeps families together. Edgerton has used his considerable skills and talents to create a powerful and moving story. (7/10)