If you’re a young gay person and your family doesn’t approve of your sexual preference, there are lots of bad things that can happen to you. One is that you can be put into conversion therapy, a type of psychological “counseling” often tinged with religious fundamentalism that is intended to make you not gay by any means necessary. There’s no evidence that it works, it’s opposed by the American Psychiatric Association and by such notables as former Surgeon General David Satcher, and yet conversion therapy remains legal in a surprising number of states.
Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, based on a memoir by Garrard Conley, focuses on an 18-year-old man, Jared (Lucas Hedges), who by his own acquiescence is put into conversion therapy following reports from his college that he’s been engaging in same-sex behavior. Jared’s parents, a Baptist preacher and car salesman (Russell Crowe) and bleached-blonde homemaker (Nicole Kidman), have always assumed that their child is straight—he was a high school athlete, had a girlfriend, and otherwise checked all the expected boxes—and while they love him, their worldview is far too narrow to accept any sexual orientation other than heterosexual.
Jared attends a sort of conversion therapy lite in an unidentified city. He and his mother have checked into a motel, as the city is some distance from the family McMansion, and every day she drives him to the conversion center in the morning and picks him up in the evening, as if he were a child attending school. The conversion program is run by Victor Skyles (Edgerton), who at first seems to be intent on boring the gay right out of his hapless patients. Apart from some fire-and-brimstone speeches by a scary ex-addict (Flea), the patients (mostly male, with a few women who are mostly ignored by the script) do silly things like making family trees annotated with information about who engaged in unapproved of behaviors (it’s a long list, including breaking the law, alcoholism, and abortion as well as homosexuality).
The very notion that a person’s sexual preference could, let alone should, be changed is offensive in and of itself, but overall the brand of conversion therapy portrayed in this film seems to be a fairly mild experience. The one exception is a brief episode filled with horror tropes that leads to a predictable outcome (you will have no problem guessing which character doesn’t make it to the end credits), which has the virtue of temporarily livening the film up and suggesting that things could be much, much worse. There’s also a more insidious threat stated by one of the male patients: if Jared doesn’t play along with the program, he will end up in one of the “houses” on the institution’s grounds, which means living there 24 hours a day without knowing when he will be allowed to leave. The horror of this fate is suggested through the only female patient to get much characterization at all, Sarah (Jesse LaTourette), who has been assigned to the houses and looks as if dementors had sucked out her very soul.
People make speeches in Boy Erased, but little of it rings true, probably because most of the actors seem to be working from behind a veil. The key exception is Cherry Jones as a sympathetic physician, but unfortunately she is onscreen for all of about 30 seconds. Unlike typical young men in their late teens and early twenties, Jared’s appearance hardly changes at all over the course of about five years, and were it not for screen cards and expo speak even that basic timeline would not be clear. Equally murky is any sense of place in this film—Jared and his family live in a generic suburb, Jared attends a cinderblock college that could literally be anywhere (and we only know it’s a college because of a sign on the wall), the therapy takes place in a generic city, and an apartment featured near the end of the movie is so generic it might as well have been ordered from Central Casting.
The clear intent of Boy Erased is to expose the evils of conversion therapy, but that message is somewhat lost in a film that is bizarrely muted while depicting subject matter that is by nature emotionally charged. All the principal characters display an affect so flat that it seems that someone slipped thorazine in the water cooler, and Edgerton’s screenplay presents Jared’s story like a scrambled jigsaw puzzle, further reducing any emotional impact that Boy Erased might otherwise have on the viewer. | Sarah Boslaugh