I knew it was going to be a difficult experience, but Boy Erased was a movie I wanted to see. I thought it was a film I needed to see.
As I watched, the question that kept coming to me was, “I wonder who this was made for?” Landmark Keystone Art Cinema was packed with fellow LGBTQ patrons and a smattering of supporters for a preview sponsored by Indy Pride, Inc. Clearly, this was a movie promoters thought would appeal to ticket buyers in the gay community. It did, but what about the wider audience?
Maybe it’s the subject matter, but Boy Erased is a pretty good horror flick. Remove the homosexuality and replace “therapists” with stalkers and that’s what you have. And everyone knows a good horror flick is likely to be popular with mainstream audiences. But pain that’s obviously fictional can be fun to watch, as opposed to pain that’s identifiably real. It’s hard to sit through a movie about actual child abuse, and ultimately that’s what this film is about.
Actor\director\screenwriter Joel Edgerton’s film, based on Garrard Conley’s autobiographical best-seller of the same name, takes a frightening look at the world of Conversion Therapy. The concept of this “care” is that homosexuality can be “cured” through a relentless regimen of confession, penance and Christian prayer.
The Conley character, Jared Eamons, (Lucas Hedges), the son of Reverend Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and his dutiful wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman), appears to have a bright future. He’s a handsome, athlete who’s on the way to college before an inevitable return home to marry his high school sweetie.
But Jared is oddly reserved. He seldom smiles and carries a vacant look in his eyes. For a teenager, he has a preternatural self restraint when it comes to his beautiful girlfriend. Like most people coming to grips with their sexual orientation, he’s often overwhelmed by thoughts of how complicated his life is about to become, especially as it relates to his parents.
When Jared tells his folks he’s gay, mom is shaken, but makes it clear that she still loves him. Dad reacts as though he’s been told his son has been afflicted with a terminal disease. What do you do when your son is ill? You get him to a doctor. If you’re a Baptist minister in Arkansas, the church elders might serve as designated doctors and before you know it Jared is shipped off to Love in Action, a camp that specializes in “curing this disease.”
Being an insecure kid, Jared initially goes along with the camp’s we’re here to love you mantra in order to please his parents. He only slowly comes to understand that he could be in the program indefinitely and that the kids who’ve been in “therapy” the longest appear to be suffering from physical abuse.
The horror in the 2017 blockbuster, Get Out, is generated by the same kind of "our idyll is not what it seems" realization. The difference in Boy Erased is that the monsters aren’t evil. This is not a Christians are bullies, morons, or both screed.
Except for a sadist played by Flea from the Chili Peppers, everyone’s just trying to save a boy they genuinely care for. Jared’s parents, and most of the counselors, aren’t portrayed as sinister cartoon characters. Each is dealing with his\her own insecurities. The terror in Boy Erased comes from the pain and suffering inflicted on innocents by good people trying their best to do what they believe is right.
The horror is magnified when we’re told this true story took place in 2004 - little more than a decade ago - and that Conversion Therapy directed at minors is illegal in only 14 states. The lesson being, ignorance and bigotry are still with us and every bit as evil as “monsters.”
If you think you’ve guessed where the story goes, you’re probably right. But the movie works because of the tone set by Edgerton and how the actors carry it out. There’s also a nice surprise near the end when one of the primary character has a (forgive me) come to Jesus moment.
Hedges’ performance shows that the stir he created in Manchester by the Sea was no fluke. Crowe’s General Maximus plus 200 pounds is more terrified than terrifying and Kidman’s Oscar buzz is well deserved. Edgerton’s head camp counselor, looking like a used car salesman all dolled up for casino night at the church, personifies the adage “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
Is Boy Erased a feel good movie? No. But even with all of the pain, you leave the theater with at least a sense of hope. In answer to the question, who is this movie made for: anyone who enjoys a good drama and is brave enough to let the movie escape the art house circuit, will appreciate this story.
Maybe there’s not as much distance between a “gay film” and a mainstream movie as there used to be.