Boy Erased is Oscar bait with a larger, entirely admirable social goal in mind. But, does it go too far in forgiving parents led astray by their faith and not far enough in sympathizing with the actual titular boy?
Boy Erased, writer-director-actor Joel Edgerton’s effective adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir, is an issue movie. It is meant to upset the viewer, educate parents of gay children, and possibly act as a catalyst for a change to our laws. As we learn from the film’s closing title cards, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults have undergone gay conversion therapy, most of them in their youth, and it is still legal in 36 states despite having been shown to be completely ineffective, usually administered by unlicensed professionals, and actually quite harmful to long-term mental health.
So, you’re supposed to watch Boy Erased and emerge from it enraged, shouting to anyone will listen, “How is this still a thing?” Yes, like systemic racism, gun violence and so much else going on in America right now, gay conversion therapy is dangerously present even though many had likely assumed it to be something we’d all moved past. In fact, gay conversion therapy, which attempts to use behavioral modification techniques to turn gay people straight, is such a blight on our modern society there have been not one but two different movies about it this year.
Boy Erased follows the sadly lesser-seen indie The Miseducation of Cameron Post, but whereas Cameron Post is really a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a gay conversion camp Boy Erased is more laser-focused on debunking organizations like Love in Focus by showing exactly what goes on behind their closed doors as shady leaders (played here by Edgerton) dole out hate disguised as love.
Using Garrard Conley’s real life experience of attending Love in Focus as an 18-year-old son to a Texas preacher after being outed to his conservative parents by a college classmate, we glimpse something which more resembles a prison or cult than a truly legitimate psychological health facility and can actually turn abusive with astonishing swiftness. The patients are obliged by confidentiality agreements to tell no one, not even their parents, about the specifics of their therapy, which usually involves being coached to blame their sexual confusion on their parents.
The cure offered is largely as simplistic as “fake it till you make it.” Don’t want to be gay? Just pretend to be straight and after a while that will be your new normal. And if you can’t do that Love in Focus might just administer you for longer-term counseling, extending your stay indefinitely or at least as long as your parents can continue to afford the exorbitant fees.
Neither Conley (played here by Lucas Hedges as if his closeted Lady Bird character was found out and send to gay conversion) nor his parents (played by Nicole Kidman as a housewife too cowed by tradition to speak up and Russell Crowe as a preacher/car dealer who might just choose his religion over his son) knew what they were getting into. Boy Erased aims to ensure no parents can believably make that claim ever again.
This means, in the larger scheme of things, discussing Boy Erased’s bonafides as an Oscar hopeful feels somehow unseemly. Awards consideration is not the goal of this movie; it’s merely an awareness-raising tool. The more people talk about this movie during awards season the more likely it is to be seen by the people who really need to hear its message.
However, not all of the conversation about Boy Erased has been entirely positive. It has become the latest chapter in the ongoing conversation over who should get to tell queer stories, with no one questioning Edgerton’s good intentions but many in the LGBTQ community viewing his film as clearly the product of a straight man. As The Pop Break argued:
“LGBTQ+ viewers won’t be shocked by any of the content shown on screen, nor will they need any of the persuading that Edgerton includes in his script to feel disgusted by the abuse. There is also a key ingredient to this story that is missing: a queer perspective on the emotional aftermath the abuse leaves on its characters. Garrard Conley’s onscreen counterpart, Jared, is never really given the chance to react to his trauma. Instead, the dialogue quickly summarizes it through monologues and dialogue. Furthermore, we never get to see Jared interact with another gay man in a way that feels honest, romantic, or even substantially positive.”
Edgerton initially passed on the project for that very reason. Talking to Total Film, he admitted, “Initially, I thought, ‘I’m not the right person to write and direct this film,’ but I would like to help produce it.” However, when more time passed without any progress on the project he sat down to write a couple of scenes for the script. Two weeks later, he had his first draft and felt compelled to keep going.
Not surprising considering some of the criticism leveled at the film, Edgerton was most drawn to the parents in the story. Like them, he too comes from a religious background and is fascinated by stories of moral people tripping up. “The two people that represent that idea in Boy Erased are the parents. Their mistake comes out of belief. And they learn through watching the pain of their child it’s a mistake. That’s a thing actually borne out of my own religious history. I always have this struggle between being a good person and being a bad person, being selfless and being selfish. And I think I’m exploring that through writing.”
As a result, Boy Erased is on its best footing when it’s simply letting the horror of the gay conversion therapy speak for itself or when Nicole Kidman’s character finally finds her inner-Mama Bear.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Boy Erased mostly preaches to the choir for one half of the audience and stuns the other half who’ve had the privilege of not knowing anything about gay conversion therapy until now, but your reaction to it will likely be determined by where you fall in or out of the LGBTQ community.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
In conjunction with the release of the film, Focus Features is rolling out a limited edition podcast called UnErased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America. I’m two episode in and I’ve already gotten more out of it than I did from Boy Erased. I don’t say that to slight the film; it’s just that these stories are so much more powerful in documentary form. The first episode is about Garrard Conley and the second episode, “Mama Bears to the Rescue,” details an ever-growing Facebook group devoted to religious mothers of gay children and how once they chose to support their kid their extended family and friends abandoned them.