Boy Erased

BOY ERASED. Starring: Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, and Joel Edgerton. Also, Cherry Jones, Joe Alwyn, and Xavier Dolan. Directed by Joel Edgerton. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (A scene of strong sexual violence). 115 min.

This American-Australian drama is based on a factual 2016 memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley. It tells the story of a young man, who is pressured by his parents and by those around him in his religious community to undergo a conversion program to cure his homosexual inclinations.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of an Arkansas Baptist pastor, Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) who preaches in a small town in rural America. Marshall’s wife, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), is loyal to her husband’s beliefs and loves her son, Jared. At 18, Jared is brutally raped by a male student, and is pressured by his father and elders of the community to take part in a gay conversion therapy program. Otherwise, he will be ostracised by family, friends, and Church.

Jared enters a program run by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), its head-therapist, and experiences acute conflict between what the program is trying to do and his own feelings. Therapy includes drawing up moral inventories for public sharing, behaviour modification, and harassing anger management. Marshall doesn’t know how to handle Jared’s conflict; his wife reinforces his beliefs, but more clearly understands his son’s pain. Jared’s religious community believes that same-sex attraction is a sickness that has to be changed to earn God’s love, and when Jared was raped, knowledge of the assault was less disturbing for some, than awareness that he was gay.

Jared’s conversion therapy is run largely by gay men who have been through the programme themselves, renounced their past, and want others to do the same. In the movie, the group of men being “treated” are instructed on masculinity by an aggressively homophobic drill sergeant. The programme regards homosexuality as addictive behaviour akin to alcoholism or gambling, and a grievous sin, akin to bestiality. Jared finds himself part of a program that preaches homosexuality is rooted in hatred of one’s family and loathing of the parts of oneself that God cannot love. He refuses to accept that message.

The film is fiercely critical of conversion therapy for its false assumptions and the ruthlessness of its treatment strategies. The film does not ridicule entirely those who believe homosexuality is a choice that cannot be reversed, and it expresses tolerance for the view that Christians can have homosexual feelings that can coexist with religious belief. The film also recognises that the convictions of Jared’s parent’s are valid to them. Edgerton’s film does not take the easy way out for Jared. He has travelled his path to sexual identity with justifiable anxiety and resentment, and he desperately wants his father to understand. The film concludes with him giving voice to his found-identity, and the credits provide evidence of later father-son reconciliation.

The film has a brutal rape scene where a  student to whom Jared is sexually attracted, viciously assaults him, and then “outs” him. The trauma and betrayal of that act carries enormous emotional force. The film strongly reinforces the message that established relationships must be truthfully and honestly expressed, not just tolerated.

The acting in the movie is very impressive. Russell Crowe sensitively plays the authoritarian minister, refusing to acknowledge the ways he has hurt his son, and Nicole Kidman convincingly  expresses the conflict of a mother coming to realise that hurting her child is not the way to help him, despite her acceptance of the principles of her husband’s Faith. Joel Edgerton powerfully projects the emotional abuses of Sykes, and Lucas Hedges movingly captures the conflict expressed by guilt and internalised shame which others have made him feel.

This film is a humanistic drama of considerable emotional force. It doesn’t answer all the questions it raises, but it cautions one against rushing to answer them unwisely, inhumanely, or unthinkingly.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Universal pictures

Released November 8th., 2018

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