‘Boy Erased’ Is A Conversion Therapy After-School Special, But The Cast Don’t Know It
Despite its best intentions, 'Boy Erased' feels hollow, missing genuine moments in its rush to become a PSA.
Boy Erased is the type of blockbuster we love to call ‘important’.
Adapted from Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, Boy Erased centres on Jared (Lucas Hedges), a nineteen-year-old entering a gay conversion program at the recommendation of his father Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist preacher. He stays with his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) in a nearby motel: soon, he realises the program is longer than the 12 days he was promised, and he may be forced to live on campus for months.
Boy Erased has a very clear purpose, one carried across from Conley’s urgency in sharing his own story: it wants you to know that gay conversion therapy is inhumane, cruel and continues to this day.
As Boy Erased‘s post-script lets us know, it’s legal in 36 states across the US, and it’s estimated 70,000 people are currently in conversion programs.
But the US isn’t exceptional. Conversion is practiced across the world, including in Australia. While it’s not directly outlawed here, conversion programs are subject to general medical and healthcare laws surrounding care: this has meant that conversion is now largely believed to be conducted across Australia in covert pseudo-psychological terms about “sexual purity” and “sexual wholeness”.
When asked about gay conversion therapies this September, Scott Morrison said it wasn’t a ‘major issue’, and just this week, the Liberal Party announced it’d throw preferences behind a pro-conversion therapy independent in the upcoming Victorian election.
Scott Morrison is PM for a week and
▪️agreed bisexuals make his “skin curl”,
▪️announced conversion therapy is legal and nothing to do with him,
▪️labeled teachers who support trans students as “gender whisperers”
This is completely out of step with mainstream Australia
— Sally Rugg (@sallyrugg) September 4, 2018
Despite what Morrison says, gay conversion is a pressing, life-threatening issue. And as a blockbuster with big names and broad appeal, Boy Erased is an important film — director Joel Edgerton paints LGBTIQ pain in a Hollywood palate that the wider world readily understands.
But there’s a hollowness to Boy Erased. In its attempt to make itself clear, it often brushes past the deeper sensations of shame and trauma at play. It does not seem interested in them, as ultimately, it is a film about LGBTIQ people that is not made for them. Instead, its target is your benignly religious aunt, your polite-but-uncomfortable-with-gays cousin.
Which isn’t to say Boy Erased is bad — it does everything it wants to do, and can be deeply moving. In large parts, that’s due to the film’s incredibly talented (and LGBTIQ littered) cast, who continually imbue their characters with a warmth and understanding that offers sparks of relief. When these moments arrive, they transcend the film’s intentionally drab, oaken world.
That’s how those moments feel for Jared and his cohort, too: but Boy Erased is too busy to centre this strength, instead chugging along to that PSA post-script.
Fighting Camps With Camp
Boy Erased isn’t the first film about gay conversion, nor even the first of 2018.
Earlier this year, Chlöe Grace Moretz starred in The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, though both are inevitably cast against the over-saturated shadow of But I’m A Cheerleader.
While reviews were mixed back in 1999, Jamie Babbit’s film about a lesbian cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) who falls in love at a conversion camp is now considered a cult classic. More aligned with Pink Flamingoes than an after-school special, the film’s John Waters-indebted aesthetic and off-kilt humour fought the horrors of conversion therapy with camp ridicule. While the harm of these acts — and the insidious ideologies behind them — is never far from the surface, it’s also laughable, and lets gay conversion’s own lack of logic implode on itself.
Rather than ever drive home the point that same-sex attraction is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’, the film continually makes a joke of our heteronormative ‘norms’ — when Megan is forced into a starchy pink dress, socks and shoes shortly after arrival, it’s equally horrific and utterly stupid.
Sure, it’s not strictly realistic, but is it much more ridiculous than the true-to-life scenes in Boy Erased where characters are lined up from least to most masculine?
Like …Cheerleader, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is directed by a queer woman, Desiree Akhavan, which is perhaps why neither film lingers on pain. In comparison, Boy Erased is forced to play such scenes straight, limiting its scope: it focuses on hurt, rather than interrogate the structures that cause it.
In contrast to …Cheerleader, Boy Erased is almost always painfully serious, often drab. It aims to be a sledgehammer of a film, though it doesn’t subject its viewers or characters to the relentless agony that so many LGBTIQ films deal in to prove their point.
Having said that, Jared’s sexual assault early into the film is incredibly upsetting. Using the same broad-strokes of desire and unspoken words as so many queer films have (see: Call Me By Your Name), we are lulled into believing we’re witnessing a pre-camp sexual awakening. When it becomes clearly un-consensual, my cinema was filled with a shame that echoes Jareds’, as the audience too wrestle with the mess of our pre-assault desires, an expectation of a tender awakening.
But Jareds’ awakening is not tender, nor was Conley’s. It is hard-fought, filled with self-doubt and hatred. Under the eye of ‘therapist’ Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton), Jared and his cohort are taught how to ‘turn straight’: how to stand like a man, to map and confront the root of their immortalities, to exorcise their sins.
Some, like Gary (Troye Sivan, who, despite advertising, is barely in the film) are able to “play the part” and skate through; others, like Jon (Xavier Dolan) embrace the program with a militaristic strictness, refusing to even shake hands with another man. Some break completely; a few stay for years. When we meet Jared at Boy Erased‘s beginning while he checks in, his future could be any of the above: he is deeply impressionable, willing to change but unsure if he can.
Speaking to Vulture recently, Hedges described how he recognised within Jared a shared “sense of anticipating and waiting for anyone and everyone to be like, ‘There’s something wrong with you.’ It’s a story about shame, which felt to me like the governing factor of my life and my childhood.”
It’s this shared shame that Hedges painfully captures with each unassured movement, as if he constantly catching then correcting himself for not simply being too feminine or too sensitive, but always being himself. Jared’s desperation is innately familiar to any queer person who has once internalised a belief they are fundamentally broken.
It’s this shame that Hedges painfully captures with each unassured movement, as if he constantly catching then correcting himself for not simply being too feminine or too sensitive, but always being himself.
Given that Conley wrote a memoir, it’s no spoiler that Jared escapes a life of playing straight. It is his relationship with his mother that saves both him and Boy Erased: as Jonno Revanché writes in their The Saturday Paper review, “Kidman holds this film together in her spindly, bejewelled, Oscar-worthy hands”. Watching Nancy slowly realise she’s ‘erasing’ her son is both cliché and incredibly moving, much like the embarrassingly strong connection between a sensitive boy and his doting mother before it’s squashed by shame.
It’s frustrating, then, that the film puts such an emphasis on reconciliation with Marshall, Jared’s preacher father. Comparatively, their relationship falls flat, painted in clichés. Talk to most queer men, and you might realise that’s where they often land — neither violent nor cathartic, just dimly disappointing and dull. The film doesn’t seem to be aware of that though, instead painting stilted lines (given little by Crowe) as a beautiful step forward.
Ultimately, Boy Erased misses too many of its own revelations, such as those offered by the cast. In multiple moments, Jared goes to physically comfort his camp cohort, just with a squeeze of the shoulder, or a touch of the hand. The camera seems to linger on these as mostly a dangerous impulse, rather than a moment of solidarity and support worth the risk. It’s not that the latter wasn’t there, but just that it was half-explored.
In one flashback, we see Jared’s first consensual sexual encounter: well, kind of. At college, a boy named Xavier invites him over: at first a nervous Jared stands awkwardly before the two eventually move to bed, stroking each other’s faces tenderly. In the background, ‘Revelation’, a song that Sivan recorded for the film with Sigur Rós’ frontman Jónsi, plays: it’s a stunning ballad about mutual liberation through connection.
Before we see anything else, we’re back at the camp: both scene and song are cut short.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.