Conversion therapy is torture. If you disagree, frankly, you can go fuck yourself. The archaic practice attempts to force heterosexuality (under the assumption that homosexuality is either a mental disorder, a disease, or a sin) via group counseling, spiritual intervention, and behavior modification. Past techniques for conversion therapy have included shock therapy, chemical castration, and partial lobotomies. For minors, the practice is outlawed in many progressive states and yet, despite a total lack of evidence that sexual orientation change efforts “work”, large swathes of the American South and Midwest continue this inhumane practice to this day.
Boy Erased, a faithful adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoirs of the same name, takes us into the heart of fundamental Christian hypocrisy, where a family’s love is greedily withheld until a penis-shaped peg fit exclusively into a vagina-shaped hole. Lucas Hedges is Jared Eamons (a pseudonym, for reasons I don’t quite understand), a faithful student and loving son whose budding homosexuality is a specter that will haunt his conservative family, including his debutant mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman, solid in the role) and his Baptist preacher/car-salesman father Marshall (Russell Crowe, tubbier by the year).
We see Jared struggle to manage his faith, family, and sexual longing as he tries to come to terms with his religious beliefs and sexuality. At college, Jared is raped and then outed to his parents by his rapist – an element of the film that director Joel Edgerton (who also co-stars as the program’s head therapist) has absolutely no idea how to handle. Post-assault, Jared is whisked off to a church-sponsored gay conversion therapy program where the movie continues to stumble and buckle, unwilling to make bold claims, hold anyone accountable for their actions, or point fingers at the real culprits perpetuating cycles of psychological torment that too often end in suicide.
The unexpected incidents of sexual violence should be shocking to audiences but in the larger scheme of things play like nervous side notes; scribbled in the margins, lacking deeper reflection, and ultimately carrying far less weight than one might expect. Following Jared’s rape, not a single scene is spent with him decompressing or coming to terms with that trauma. Instead, the focus is placed singularly on his experience “praying the gay away”. Similarly, there’s an instance of suicide that just kind of cycles in and out of the picture, lacking an emotional crescendo and robbed of the deserved impact of a gay teen killing himself because he could never earn his family’s love.
Frankly, the important subject matter is undone over and over again by middlebrow filmmaking in the unremarkable miss that is Boy Erased. For all its good intentions, Edgerton’s film tackles a debatably controversial topic in the least controversial way imaginable. There’s nothing explosive in this too-kind natured biopic and as such Boy Erased can be an extremely frustrating watch, perhaps by design.
Ultimately, Edgerton’s overtly sympathetic approach is his undoing, resulting in a film whose impact is like most of its characters – shallow and weak-willed. There is little depth poured into any character not named Jared and Edgerton assumes that wrapping up their arcs in a text box before the credit rolls is enough. It is not. Take Edgerton’s Victor Sykes, the head therapist at the conversion center, who remains a distant mystery throughout the film, not extended any discernible arc or texture.
Boy Erased feels like a morality lesson for the already lost. The drama is frustratingly even-keeled and lacks cadence. It’s flat. Monotonous. Almost pandering to those who disagree with its assertion that conversion therapy is evil. An ocean of obvious emotions wrestle beneath the surface but Edgerton’s filmmaking fails to capture the riptide above. His unwillingness to paint in distinct shades of good a bad is an accidental blight that constantly dulls the impact of the film.
Along the way, Hedges manages a strong performance but the script, also from Edgerton, just doesn’t give him enough to do. Or say. Or feel. His stay in the conversion program should be harrowing and yet it mostly just seems like a tedious bore.
In her critique of Conley’s memoir, The Washington Post’s Jamie Brickhouse wrote: “It’s a powerful convergence of events that Conley portrays eloquently, if a bit earnestly. Conley was full of confusing contradictions – as deeply embedded in the teachings of the Bible as he was in the prose of great literature.” These contractions end up creating a story that’s too afraid to hold anyone accountable – that blames some ambiguous system and offers future sufferers “thoughts and prayers.” Just as Jared is unwilling to stand up to his family and tell them how crushing they have been to his spirit, Boy Erased fails to tell its audiences who still believe in the myth of conversion therapy that they’re idiots. Plain and simple. There’s no righteous anger on display. Just a mellow documentation of wrongs. And staring so much base hypocrisy in the face should get anyone fired up, not sleepy. Certainly not passive.
All this being said, there still are people who I would love to plop in front of this film, it being a movie designed specifically for them. For those self-righteous Christians who need a glimpse of the trauma their words and encouragements and actions cause. And whose feelings Edgerton seemingly really doesn’t want to hurt. They’re the ones this movie is for. Me on the other hand, I’m not so gentle. And I believe wholeheartedly that a handy “Fuck you” is in order for anyone who has participated in such patent villainy. And this is what Boy Erased lacks entirely – any hint of “Fuck you.”
CONCLUSION: ‘Boy Erased’ takes a difficult subject – a teen’s experience with gay conversion therapy – and turns it into a lulling, don’t-rock-the-boat drama, devaluing the trauma of the subject matter with a monotonous and flatlined delivery, despite strong performances.