Film review: Boy Erased

(image via IMP Awards)


For a species that has used endless ingenuity and creativity to scramble its way up the evolutionary pile, humanity can be hideously inflexible at times.

There is something hardwired into the very fabric of Homo sapiens that lends itself to entrenched adherence to a set of beliefs, no matter how diabolically-wrong it may be, a devotion to “truth” that remains implacably opposed to change even if comes at the cost of somebody’s sanity or life.

The dynamic sits at the root of many belief systems, good and bad, but for the purposes of the Joel Edgerton written and directed Boy Erased, based on the book of the same name by Garrard Conley, it fuels the phenomenon of gay conversion therapy, a program that believes a person can have their homosexuality deprogrammed by sheer belief, prayer and religious-bullying alone.

Given aspirationally-affirming names like Love in Action – as an ex-churchgoer and minister’s son I can attest that the kindlier the name, the more brutal the activities carried out under its banner – these programs used some fairly-twisted theology and half-baked psychology to force people to renounce what is quaintly-termed their “same sex attraction” (it’s deliberately made to sound relatively benign to facilitate the idea that you have a choice to not be gay) in favour of a supposedly-superior Christian lifestyle.

But as Boy Erased makes clear, what may be powered by sincere love and concern – it would be a mistake to paint all the people behind these programs as monsters; they mean well even if their creations are damaging and dangerous beyond belief – is often enacted with a brutal hand that cares less for the person and more for the fact that these beliefs are validated and upheld.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), a stand-in character for author Garrard Conley whose book is a memoir of his experiences in the “ex-gay” movement, is the sole child of fiery Southern preacher Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and loving but initially-subservient mum Nancy (Nicole Kidman), a young man of 18 upon whose shoulders a great deal of expectation has been placed.

Not least the idea that apart from one day taking over his father’s car dealership, he will one day step up into the role of a staunchly-devoted man of God; his sexuality is not even specified because no one can conceive of a good Christian being anything other than avowedly heterosexual.


(image via IMP Awards)


The big fly in this dynastic ointment?

Jared is gay.

Of course, like all of us who grow up in the church shouldering the terrible secret that we are gay – not that being gay is terrible; it is more that the way holding it close to your chest enacts an awful, corrosive toll on your sense of self and your mental and emotional wellbeing – Jared plays the part of a straight man to the hilt, partly out of a fear of societal rejection but in large part because he is frightened by the idea of being something other than that ordained by a frighteningly-inflexible orthodoxy.

For all its talk of love and acceptance, and make no mistake there are a sizeable number of truly loving Christians out there who honestly understand what love really looks like, the institutional church often finds it difficult, make that well-nigh impossible, to deal with anyone who doesn’t tow the “party line” with complete and utter surety.

Grappling no doubt with his sexuality from a young age, like most of us, and corralled by his parents into undertaking remedial action to “fix” himself, Jared heads off to Love in Action for what is initially presented as a 12-day course of therapy, prayer and corrective action.

You can tell by Hedge’s powerfully-nuanced performance that Jared is reluctant and uncertain; part of him wants it to work, needs it to work because he can’t conceive of a life that is straight and Christian, but he is also aware, as those of use who have walked his path (I also went to a gay conversion program though nowhere near as hardcore, program-wise at least, as the one depicted in the film) that nothing is going to be changed.

What is shocking, or not if you’ve had any exposure to programs like Love in Action, is how little love is actually involved.

Often run by ex-gays who are themselves waging unnaturally vicious battles to suppress their true selves in pursuit of a higher ideal that is utterly unattainable and dangerously deluded, these programs are characterised by emphatic denunciations, outright cruelty, and a mania that says you must denounce and hate your parents who are the cause of your sexual malaise.

Jared witnesses all these things during his two-week descent into a hell that on the surface is all buttoned-down shirts, no touching and chaperoned visits to the toilets but below is a festering wound of abuse and neglect in the name of God.

It’s an unnatural bubble (which won’t survive the real world), one in which he is forbidden to become friends or offer support of any kind to fellow program inductees such as Jon (Xavier Dolan), who is trenchant in his belief in Love in Action’s broken curriculum, Cameron (Britton Sear), a young man openly persecuted by his pastor family and Gary (Troye Sivan) who is talking the talk to ensure he escapes relatively unscathed from the course, or to question any tenets of his hardline beliefs.


(image via IMP Awards)


One particularly compelling and horrifying scene where the true viciousness of Love in Action’s misguided program is brought to the brutal fore is when a mock funeral is carried out and Cameron is repeatedly beaten with a heavy Bible by family members and some program members, in the process being abusively and disastrously-publicly humiliated.

How anyone can think this barbaric ritual will result in anything pure and loving is beyond belief, and yet it is enacted with the expectation that Cameron will be a changed and Godly man afterwards.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see how much damage this kind of violent treatment can do to a person, or to appreciate how treating rape and abuse as something as nebulous as “sin” can sink a person to a point beyond help. (Jared is raped by a fellow student he’s become close to at college but rather than offer him true counselling and care, he is simply told by Love in Action’s pastoral team to renounce his sin, a demand that tips him over the edge into fleeing, with his mother’s help, the program.)

Granted at times Boy Erased can feel heavy-handed and overdone but as someone who grew up in the church and witnessed the dynamic that can lead to people behaving like program director Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) does to his cowered charges, it is unerringly accurate for the most part in its depictions.

The important message that has to come from a film like Boy Erased, which elicits anger and sadness in great measure, especially if you have been, even partially, in Jared’s shoes, is that not only is homosexuality not a sin but that it is an entirely natural state of being and that trying to cure it is foolish at best, and mentally and mortally-endangering at worst.

That Garrard Conley came out the other end is testament to his own willingness to fight back but many people have not been so lucky and if Boy Erased shuts down these programs for good – they are still currently active in 36 US states and many places in Australia – then it will have proved its worth a million times over.

Quite apart from its role as a tool of public persuasion and societal debate, the film is a powerful piece of dramatic storytelling, driven by finely-judged performances, a brave script willing to tell it like it is, and a hunger for exposing the truth about a program that is driven purportedly by love, so we’re led to believe, but which is, in the end, frighteningly short of it when it really counts.



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