When Garrard Conley’s book, “Boy Erased: A Memoir,” was published in 2016, only five states had adopted legislation that banned so-called “gay conversion therapy” for minors.
Two years later, that number has grown to 15, if you count the District of Columbia – meaning that, in nearly 70 percent of the United States, it is still legal to subject your child to a practice deemed by the American Psychiatric Association to have “serious potential to harm young people.”
Now, at a time when the current presidential administration is pursuing the kind of regressive policies that make it seem particularly timely, comes the highly-anticipated film version of Conley’s memoir. Written and directed by actor/filmmaker Joel Edgerton, “Boy Erased” adapts the book – which combines Conley’s personal experiences with a more journalistic look at the “ex-gay” movement – into an intimate coming-of-age tale about a 19-year-old college student (Lucas Hedges) who is “outed” to his conservative Baptist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) and subsequently forced to attend an evangelical counseling program. It’s Conley’s own story, though the names are changed, and the author worked extensively with Edgerton throughout the project.
Edgerton’s film takes a different tack than “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” this year’s other gay-conversion-camp movie, in which the camp and its counselors – at least in the beginning – are treated with a touch of tongue-in-cheek irony; the tone is light, almost comedic, until the seriousness of what is being done in the name of “curing” these children begins to become clear.
With “Boy Erased,” however, there is no distancing humor. Its young protagonist truly thinks there is something wrong with him, and the staff, far from the pseudo-hippie goofiness of the “Cameron Post” crew, are true believers – almost chillingly so. It’s clear from the start that what is going on here is not just wrong, but dangerous.
It’s as upsetting to observe as you might expect. We’ve heard the stories, we know what goes on in these places – the shaming, the judgment, the gaslighting designed to brainwash participants into believing they are “broken” and must be “fixed.” Even so, seeing it depicted here is sure to outrage any viewer already opposed to such practices, and – hopefully – call them into question for any who are not.
Though the movie is unequivocal in its harsh view of conversion therapy, it is more charitable toward the motives of the people who buy into it. “Boy Erased” portrays the parents as well-meaning, loving people who act in what they genuinely think are the best interests of their son; as Conley has said, they simply “put their trust in the wrong people.”
For many, especially at a time when the words “sincerely-held religious beliefs” are widely seen as code for bigotry, it’s a bit of a hard sell to see such parents as blameless; but it helps that they are played by two of the finest screen actors of their generation. Crowe, who submerges himself completely in his role, exudes a quiet strength clearly founded on sincerity, however misguided the principles behind it may be; and Kidman, superb as always, radiates with such innate kindness that we simply know her complicity cannot last – a knowledge which provides us with a ray of hope even through the movie’s darkest moments.
As for Hedges, he continues a run of performances that is fast making him one of the standout young actors in Hollywood. This is his largest role to date, placing the burden of the film essentially on his shoulders, and he proves himself more than capable of carrying it. The casting of a non-gay performer (Hedges has said he is not ready to put a label on himself, but that he acknowledges he “exists on a spectrum”) has inevitably provoked controversy, but author Conley – whose story, after all, is the one being told – stands by the choice. In any case, from the standpoint of talent, there is no reason to object; his work is stellar.
In supporting roles, Edgerton himself plays the program’s “ex-gay” director, in a solid and surprisingly likable performance; Flea (bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) is a strong standout as a menacing staffer who puts a face on the ugly homophobia which underlies the entire concept of conversion therapy; and out musician Troye Sivan has a memorable scene as a program participant who shares his savvy and surprising truth in a private moment with Hedges.
The fine cast is showcased by Edgerton’s confident but low-key direction, and like them, he favors underplaying. He keeps the tone soft, even tender, so that when the shocking moments come, they strike us hard. This tactic mostly serves him well, but it must be said that the overall impression left by the film is oddly muted; the emotional highs and lows never quite seem to reach fruition, leaving the viewer without a satisfying release. At the same time, there are a few scenes that feel contrived – confrontations and climactic moments that feel a little too on-the-nose, orchestrated for dramatic purposes (or perhaps, more cynically, to provide an “Oscar moment”) and not quite in keeping with the otherwise lifelike flow.
Still, the film’s messaging is on point, and it’s impossible not to be affected by the empathy which is its defining quality. It extends compassion to all its characters, and although it delivers a damning indictment against a barbaric practice, it does so without demonizing or grandstanding; rather, it tells a simple, human story which reaffirms both the individual right to live one’s own truth and the power of our common bonds to bridge the gaps between us.
In a time when our culture feels irreparably divided, it’s a message that seems too good to be true; but thanks to its loving heart and its good intentions, “Boy Erased” makes us almost believe it.