As of today, there are still 36 states in the United States where “gay conversion therapy” (aka “ex-gay therapy”) is legal. Boy Erased, an earnest adaptation of Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, sheds stark light on this pseudoscientific practice, exposing the terrifying damage it inflicts on religious LGBTQ folks and their families. But along with portraying these programs’ relentless harms, the film also effectively showcases the resilience and love of one family who challenge the practice head-on.
Growing up, Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) was a good Southern boy, the son of a good pastor (Russell Crowe) and a good pastor’s wife (Nicole Kidman). He attended church, played basketball, didn’t pressure his girlfriend into premarital petting, and was headed for a seamless transition from high school to college. But this Jared, viewed in flashbacks, is quite different from the tentative, broken Jared of the film’s opening moments, shown entering the premises of a conversion therapy facility called “Love In Action.”
As Jared’s story unfolds through present-day experiences in the brutal program, intercut with scenes from his formative past experiences, both Jareds are fleshed out in alternating timelines, showing both the moments when a blossoming teenager is cowed into fearing his own feelings, and the crucial moments when a young man comes into his own and takes back his life.
This back-and-forth style adds tension and potent juxtaposition to what is a rather straightforward coming-of-age and coming-out story. The controversy of “gay conversion therapy” has grown more notorious in the past decades, and Boy Erased does not add new or profound insight to the conversation. Instead, its power comes from the specificity of the story and characters. Jared and his mother Nancy are beautifully nuanced and well-drawn. And the supporting characters are all finely-etched and effective, from the program’s mercurial headmaster Victor (writer-director Joel Edgerton) and the program’s clients, including gentle giant Cameron (Britton Sear), sly Gary (Troye Sivan), and on-edge Jon (Xavier Dolan), to the formative men of Jared’s past, hauntingly volatile Henry (Joe Alwyn), confidently coercive Xavier (Théodore Pellerin), and pious pastor-father Marshall.
As the film progresses, the exercises inside “Love in Action” devolve from being merely eye-rollingly inept to truly harrowing. Before Jared makes his escape, with his mother unflaggingly supporting the exodus, one client is nearly concussed by balls in a batting cage and another is repeatedly beaten with a Bible in a mock funeral for his “manhood.” The combination of toxic masculinity and fundamentalist Christianity, both of which are ripe for satire and cartoonish treatment, are handled with straight-faced sincerity throughout. And the film makes it easy to believe that the Christians at the heart of this story truly believe that their faith and “homosexuality” are incompatible. Even the most dangerously misguided character is handled with sensitivity and empathy, which raises the stakes and lifts the story from being mere liberal back-patting fodder to feeling like a multi-dimensional interrogation of the ways fear and faith combine to hurt so many.
More than anything, the support that Nancy shows for Jared, at first quiet, then growing into a firestorm of motherly love, is the film’s beating heart. As scene after scene depicts frantic men desperately trying to beat the idea of masculinity into themselves and others, both in word and act, it is the fierce bond between mother and son that is both Jared’s and the film’s saving grace.
Until “gay conversion therapy” is a thing of the past, stories like Jared’s must spread and resonate, both to show the horrific realities of this barbaric practice and to show the transformative power of parents accepting and celebrating their children just the way they are.