Southern queers would be right to greet the premise of Boy Erased with some reservation. Hollywood’s visions of the American South too often revert to the caricatures and clichés which proliferate in the desert of liberal self-congratulation: yes, we think, here is the corpulent and homophobic preacher, whose kindly eyes we know better than to credit. And here the neurotic blonde mom, immaculate French tips standing out against every surface. But despite the risk of cartoonishness, Boy Erased succeeds, anchored in powerful performances and in a near-documentary approach that unflinchingly uncovers the perversions and barbarity of conversion therapy, as it is still legally practiced in thirty-six states.
Adapted by Director Joel Edgerton from Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, the movie tells the story of Jared Eamons (played by Lucas Hedges), who, after being outed at college, is sent by his parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) to a conversion therapy camp in Arkansas. The movie documents his day-to-day experience there, while depicting in flashback, the moments that led up to the crisis in which Jared now finds himself: an abortive sexual encounter with a high school girlfriend; a homoerotic relationship with a college acquaintance which soon turns dark and violent; and ultimately the revelation of Jared’s sexuality during a stay at home from college.
These scenes, and many others in the movie, are filmed with a tenderness and care that show us individuals grappling with experiences for which they have been in no way prepared. Lucas Hedges beautifully plays the coming-of-age of a gay boy, the way that moments of delight and sexual discovery are marbled with doubt, boyish curiosity undercut by confusion. All piety and polish, Nicole Kidman nails the inner conflict of a woman whose breeding dictates that so much be unsaid in a situation urgently calling out for honesty and candor; whose deference to her husband has endangered the son whom she so obviously loves. And Russell Crowe as the preacher-father is a stunning portrayal of moral cowardice: all body and yet somehow all shadow, he is literally hard to see, fading into the background of every shot he’s in, in contrast to Hedges and Kidman who shine increasingly brightly against their context. The message is clear: he is of this small-minded world, his son and wife merely in it.
The camp itself is a stifling and khaki-colored brutality, administered by thugs. Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame) in particular gives a chilling performance as the camp’s enforcer, whose barely concealed hatred of the kids threatens to boil over into physical violence. One detail that resonated powerfully with me is that Jared’s ultimate refusal to convert is not just a version of his having been Born this Way (in a sense, the easy route for the film to have taken), but actually an active and self-aware resistance on his part. The movie is about Jared’s discovery of his own agency, and he is in many ways the agent of the change that occurs in others. The conversion, in other words, backfires. Because although he displays all the self-doubt typical of an eighteen-year-old gay boy, Jared Eamons does not hate himself, and it’s this crucial detail that carries the movie, converting its hideous content into an occasion for personal triumph.
There are rumblings in the homosphere of Boy Erased as another installment in the public’s long obsession with gay tragedy. But the fact that there are only the briefest representations of gay love and solidarity in the film is what illustrates to us the perversion of the world we are witnessing. While in classic pre-Stonewall cinema, characters met grisly ends in what audiences are meant to read as a restoration of the straight world order, in Boy Erased the negativity and violence our protagonist must endure is the evil and cowardice of his society writ small.
Boy Erased isn’t perfect; the first act has all the narrative momentum of a grocery list, as Edgerton methodically assembles the picture of Normal American Boyhood from which Jared’s sexuality will exile him, and its creative choices are mostly safe and expected. But the movie is redeemed by the humanity and depth of its performances, particularly revealed in the one-on-one scenes between Jared and his each of his parents, which Edgerton wisely gives space to breathe. It’s in these moments that the film moves past the barbarism of conversion therapy into a witness of more complex and humane conversions, namely those necessitated by love.
James Loop is a writer living in New York. You can find him online in Hyperallergic, the Lambda Literary Poetry Spotlight, and @jimmytheloop.