“Boy Erased” deals with a controversial topic — conversion therapy for gays and lesbians. And in the current political climate, it would be reasonable to expect more than a few fireworks and condemnations from a movie that reeks of what some consider to be the liberal Hollywood elite.
But “Boy Erased” doesn’t do that. Although it’s clear that writer/director Joel Edgerton thinks conversion therapy is misguided, he does not paint as monsters the parents of a young man who is put into such therapy. Instead, Edgerton helps us understand the motivations of both the father, an Arkansas preacher, and his wife.
It also helps that Edgerton has tapped two fellow Australian actors, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, to play these pivotal roles in telling the story of Jared Eamons, played by Lucas Hedges. Both Crowe and Kidman have the acting chops to gain our empathy, even though we may not agree with their actions. (They seem destined to be nominated for supporting actor Oscars.)
But Hedges is the star, and he makes his character believable and lovable. He’s not completely opposed to going to conversion therapy after being outed to his parents. He is a Christian. He understands the complexities of being gay in a conservative Arkansas town that doesn’t believe Christianity and homosexuality are compatible. He thinks life would be much easier if he were straight and if he could wipe out his sexual thoughts about other young men.
So he goes to a facility for treatment each day. His mother drives him there and waits in a motel room for his release. While there, he goes through exercises led by Victor Sykes (Edgerton) in an effort to make him straight. He meets other young men and women, and he wonders about what happens to those who resist the conversion process.
He has a few hints, especially when he meets people who have been sent to live at the facility full time. And it’s not something he wants to do. He fears that he’ll lose his freedom, that he will be bullied into pretending to be straight. But he tries to understand what he’s going through, in part because of his parents and in part because he isn’t sure what it would mean to live life as a gay man.
Jared’s parents, Marshall and Nancy, struggle with what they’re doing to their son. Marshall feels it’s necessary. He can’t reconcile homosexuality with his beliefs about the Bible. And he leads a very conservative Baptist congregation. Nancy, as a loving wife and sincere Christian, feels compelled to support her husband at first.
But Nancy is the key to the whole movie. While trying to be the peacemaker, she comes to realize that her son is deeply unhappy and hurting. And she makes a brave decision that can be summarized in three short sentences: “I love God and God loves me. And I love my son. That simple.”
As Edgerton says in notes about the movie, he’s not trying to make anyone into a bad person. The movie is inspired by a 2016 memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley. As Edgerton says, “Everyone believed they were doing the right thing,” referring to the Conley family, who are named the Eamons family in the film.
Those who believe in conversion therapy — and there are many who do — will probably see the film as agenda-driven. And it is, to some extent, since it includes information about how 36 states, including Texas, still don’t have laws against conversion therapy.
At the movie’s end, however, there’s a touching real-life coda that sends a message of love.
That’s what “Boy Erased” is about, if you give it a chance. It’s that simple.