Recovering What’s Been Lost: A 'Boy Erased' film review
by Will Lindus
Based on the memoirs of Garrard Conley’s real life experiences in gay conversion therapy, Boy Erased is the tragic and inspiring story of a young man (here, renamed to Jared Eamons) who is forced into a gay conversion program sponsored by the church after he is forcibly outed to his deeply Baptist parents. The wounds caused by this abhorrent practice are still felt today; according to a study by UCLA, approximately 698,000 LGBTQ Americans have undergone some form of conversion therapy, and an estimated 20,000 more LGBTQ youth will join them in the next few years. Boy Erased captures elegantly and poignantly the confusion and pain these people must experience as their faith is used as a bludgeon to deny them their self-actualization.
Prior to conversion therapy, Jared is a relatively ‘normal,’ well-adjusted young man. Played with conviction by Lucas Hedges, a bold talent with recent credits including MID90s, Lady Bird, Manchester By the Sea, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jared has used the values instilled by his Baptist father to forge a happy life for himself. He loves his family, his friends, his small Texas hometown, the car dealership where he works part time, and the college where he sharpens his writing skills. But Jared is also secretly gay, and wrestling with this fact. After a horrific encounter with a classmate, he is outed to his parents, who sign him up for gay conversion therapy. Jared relents, feeling as though his faith and his family are too important to sacrifice.
I can’t help but apply my own real life experiences as a gay man to my analysis of this film, and while my coming out story featured no faith-based attacks or familial ultimatums, I remember all too well the vulnerable trepidation of that time of my life, and can understand fully why someone might reluctantly agree to a form of therapy that is, essentially, psychological torture. The program Jared attends is soon revealed to be a terrifying experience, as program director Victor Sykes (played by director Joel Edgerton) tears apart the self-esteem of the teens and adults under his care. Their self-worth is torn to shreds as they are forced to confess their sins to the group, in some cases even lying about their experiences to placate Sykes. Additional torture comes in the form of an ex-drug addict (played by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) who berates the program attendees with homophobic slurs.
Jared finds himself at a crossroads. His Baptist preacher father (Russell Crowe) is stoic and determined, unwilling to listen to Jared’s protests. His mother (Nicole Kidman) has to wrestle with her own demons as she balances her faith and her beliefs against the well-being of her son. For his part, Jared has to learn how to reconcile his faith with his sexuality, and how to protect himself while being victimized by the barbaric conversion therapy program. Helping him in his journey are the bonds he builds with fellow program attendees, including a boy who knows how to navigate the system (musician Troye Sivan) and a boy who is in the process of being broken by the system (Britton Sears).
Boy Erased has two problems holding it back. While the film includes some light references to the state of gay conversion therapy programs in the United States as a whole, it focuses the brunt of its cry for change on the victims themselves, empowering them to overcome the social and religious oppression that enables these programs. This is noble, but it ignores the fact that sweeping legislation banning these programs needs to be enacted immediately. We shouldn’t force vulnerable members of our society to have to defend themselves, and while the film doesn’t exactly follow this line of thinking, it doesn’t do enough to help inspire external change. The second fault of the film lies in its sole focus on Jared himself, which is understandable considering his role as the narrator and the fact that he represents Garrard Conley’s voice in his memoirs. Still, Jared’s friends from the program could have used a bit more development.
Bottom Line: Boy Erased is an excellent film that captures all of the necessary emotional beats that should accompany this important and timely topic. It’s difficult not to tear up at some of the more impactful moments, and those moments are so incredibly dramatic that you almost forget that this actually happened. That this is actually still happening today. Despite some of its shortcomings, Boy Erased helps to capture the human element of gay conversion therapy victimhood, and I hope against hope that it helps to inspire the change that this vulnerable group of LGBTQ youth so desperately needs.
Bonus Bottom Line: Okay, so this is a review on a bear-centric film review site, and I’d be painfully remiss in failing to mention that Russell Crowe has been morphing into quite the attractive daddy bear over the past few years. His appearance in Boy Erased is the crescendo of this metamorphosis. Obviously not the point of the film, which is why I saved objectification for the post-script, but I’d be failing my readership if I didn’t mention it.
4 out of 5 Bear Paws