By Andrea Thompson
More and more stories of conversion therapy are being told, but seldom has a story been told from such an insider’s perspective. Granted, such stories are – and should – be told from the perspective of those unfortunate enough to have to go through programs designed to “cure” people of their homosexuality. But not only is “Boy Erased” adapted from a memoir, the memoir just happened to be that of an Arkansas preacher’s son. He was fully immersed in the world which makes such destructive belief systems possible.
“Boy Erased” kicks off with Jared (Lucas Hedges) beginning the program, which is unsettling from the start. All of his personal items and privacy are taken from him, and his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is not allowed to enter and see the kind of place she’s dropping off her son at every day. Even more unsettling is the fact that Jared is in danger of becoming a full-time resident if the administrators don’t believe their regimen is taking properly.
Unlike another film about such practices, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” Jared shows few signs of resistance, at least in the early stages. He wants to believe the preacher Victor (Joel Edgerton, who also directs) is there to help him, and that he can truly change and have the life his pastor father Marshall (Russel Crowe) wants for him. We already know it’s a doomed quest, and when flashbacks reveal the path that led Jared to conversion therapy is when his surroundings and the people who run it are broken down and revealed for what they are, and just how vulnerable Jared is.
The school itself and Jared’s world soon exudes the kind of menace that inevitably springs from the kind of dangerous self-hatred that accompanies constant, daily repression which threatens to perpetuate a cycle of violence. His instructors are obsessed with their rigid, traditional ideal of manhood, so much so they think nothing of testing Jared’s blood for testosterone. Their ideas would be laughable if they weren’t taken so seriously. And if their power over their charges weren’t so absolute.
Small wonder then, that another student asks Jared to “play the part” when he can see he’s having doubts. Or he’ll end up in the houses, where students who haven’t made enough progress live full-time. It leaves Jared not only wrestling with his sexual identity, but his place in his family and community. The fact that many members of this community, even the most damaging ones, are depicted so realistically adds to the tragic aura Jared’s world exudes, from his college to his home to the school that threatens to engulf him. Because the real message of “Boy Erased” actually has little to do with religion, but humanism. It advocates for love as a path to redemption, to reconciliation.
For “Boy Erased,” its power is very real. When Jared tries to walk out of the school, he finds that it’s not as easy as he was led to believe, with the instructors literally blocking his every exit. His mother, standing trapped just outside a locked door, is only able to retreive her son with the help of another student (who is also painfully brutalized with Bibles at one point) and when she threatens to call the police. Her love is what enables her to stand up to her husband and refuse to allow Jared to return to the program. It is also love that seems to keep Jared sane in his later years, when his father still has difficulty accepting his son and what he put him through by enrolling him in the program.
Edgerton manages to tell this story mostly without caricaturing the various people who populate it, even adding some humor, some intentional, some the natural result of how such beliefs unfold in reality. That’s not to say there aren’t the usual staples of what has become a genre in itself. The other teens in the program are also a bit too silent, with most of their dialogue only given as it relates to Jared’s struggles and confusion. But what is focused on is conveyed with enough empathy and skill (Kidman especially does incredible work) that you feel for everyone, even a few of those who by no means deserve it.