Gay conversion therapy has become a forgotten topic in America, but it continues to be bafflingly relevant in contemporary society. Boy Erased is a step towards addressing and tackling the issues and consequences of gay conversion therapy programs like conversion camps. Adapted from Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, Boy Erased is a biographical drama that takes a subtle but powerful look at the tensions between religion and sexuality.
The film follows Jared Eamons (Lukas Hedges), the son of Baptist parents, who is forced by his father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), to go to a conversion camp after his father. The camp is led by chief therapist Victor Sykes, played by the brilliant Joel Edgerton, who also happens to be the director of the film. Jared, and fellow attendees like Gary (Troye Sivan) and Jon (Xavier Dolan), are quickly swept into a world of abuse and manipulation.
Despite its heavy subject material, Boy Erased is a film endowed with grace. The actors’ performances are understatedly elegant. Hedges communicates his pain, confusion, and sadness through muted gestures and facial expressions rather than words. It is a visual experience – the audience is invited to look, as well as listen. The film is full of beautiful details: from Nicole Kidman, who plays Jared’s mother, Nancy, fiddling with her rosary, to the creaking of the bunk bed in Jared’s college dorm.
Boy Erased shines a spotlight on Lukas Hedges. He acts with enough nuance to formulate the perfect character that stands between being ordinary and anomalous. His journey through his sexuality is marked by spaces: a car, a college dorm, and a studio flat. The audience sees him hesitant, scared, vulnerable, and, eventually, tender and open to love. If you hadn’t heard of Hedges before Boy Erased, the movie does its part to make sure you do.
Hedges’ performance is, however, outshined by Kidman. As the passive wife of a Baptist preacher, Nancy stands in the shadows and watches as her husband pushes her son down a rocky path. She is in the darkness of the kitchen when Marshall provides Jared with the ultimatum to either move out or partake in the conversion program; she is in the opposite bedroom in the hotel they stay at for the duration of the camp, stunned into silence as she reads through the program’s instruction manual. Kidman’s performance is constantly moving and convincing, as she grows from a bystander, to a mother who puts her son over and above anything, and anyone, else.
Notable mentions go out to Crowe and Edgerton, who ensure their characters stray away from simply being seen as villainous stereotypes. Victor Sykes is full of inner conflicts, always a man who is repressing so much that he can only lash out. He projects his anger onto his students, and we see his sense of struggle and failure as he watches parents slowly take his attendees away from him one by one. Marshall’s fury and disappointment is never exaggerated, but carefully contained under Crowe’s masterful hands.
However, despite its running time of two hours, Boy Erased could have developed its minor characters more. We are only given tantalising glimpses of Jared’s fellow attendees and past lovers; snapshots of their pasts are provided, rather than satisfying, developed backstories. The minor characters create an incomplete mosaic of repressed sexuality, homophobia, and desire, which leaves the audience curious for more.
Boy Erased may be a pale blue streak of paint, rather than a splatter of navy, but it finds success in its subtlety. Intelligent, moving, and beautifully portrayed, Boy Erased is a necessary film that provides an insight into the cruelty of conversion therapy, as well as a voice for its victims.
Image Credits: IMDb