Released: 8th November
Seen: 8th November
In 2016, Gerrard Conley released a memoir titled “Boy Erased” about when his family enrolled him into conversion therapy in hopes of turning their gay son straight. Conversion therapy is a non-scientific form of therapy (As in, it’s not actually therapy) that claims to be able to make someone straight, something that the American Psychiatric Association says you can’t do but since when has religious fundamentalists ever listened to science? This film is an adaptation of that memoir and is meant to be a deep exploration of what happens during conversion therapy in an attempt to educate the masses of its real dangers… they have the best of intentions, I’ll give them that.
The story is one that is sadly more common than it should be, namely a pair of well-meaning adults hear that their child is gay and instead of actually accepting their child, they try and cure them. This is a real thing that is still happening today, and not just in the United States. 30 States in the US still permit this form of “Therapy”, it’s happening in Australia, it’s happening in places all over the world and this movie is just one person’s version of it. The film gives us the backstory of Jared Eamons (Played by Lucas Hedges), the son of a preacher man… just not the kind that would’ve reached out for Dusty Springfield. One day, following a traumatic event, his father Marshall (Played by Russell Crowe) gets a phone call telling him that Jared is gay. After a meeting with a few other people in the church, Marshall talks Jared into going to a conversion therapy place. Jared’s mother Nancy (Played by Nicole Kidman) goes with Jared for the trip, staying in the hotel while her son gets all that gay prayed out of him by Victor Sykes (Played by Joel Edgerton).
Joel Edgerton has stated in interviews that he didn’t want to vilify any of the people involved, since everyone in this movie is based on a real person and he wanted to focus on the actual therapy itself and the practice of it but the problem with that is that the actual therapy itself is one based on scam artistry and bigotry against gay people, when those two forces combine you get people believing they will pray the gay out of someone. Trying to paint everyone involved as just good people trying to help in a misguided way is fine when it’s a buddy movie where people help with thanksgiving and accidentally blow up the turkey, but it’s a little less so when it’s about a literally abusive concept designed to force people into repressing their natural sexuality and often leads to self-harm, depression and suicide. It’s a little hard to paint anyone involved in that as sympathetic people just trying to help… they’re not, they’re simply not. This film tries to make the parents seem like they’re just trying to help and that feels like it’s downplaying the severity of what’s being talked about here.
There are a lot of things that this film does wonderfully, the cast alone is worth the price of admission. Lucas Hedges is a genuinely compelling lead and I will not be surprised when he gets nominated for this role at the Oscars next year. I also won’t be shocked when Nicole Kidman gets nominated because her performance as the mother is one of the most powerful elements of the film, if anything the film should be focussed on her more because her slow realisation that she loves her son enough to be able to deal with his sexuality is so powerful that it makes your heart stop. She’s the best part of this film, hands down. Russell Crowe and Joel Edgerton also shine in their roles and if we could’ve seen more of Joel Edgerton’s character, I dare say that it might’ve been even better.
The film falters by trying too hard to be polite about the people involved, a natural hazard when dealing with the real stories of real people. It’s not going to call out Nancy and Marshall too much for sending their son to a gay conversion therapy camp, because those are the Gerrard’s parent’s and he doesn’t want to vilify them. I get that, it’s hard to condemn your parent’s when they do something bad. It’s not helped that there is a genuinely weird and pointless need to give everyone fake names. Fake names that are dropped when the credits want to do a “Here’s what the real people are doing now” moment, which reveals some things about Edgerton’s character that aren’t even really hinted at during the film. Playing it safe robs the film of some of its power. Not all of it, this is still a good film that has a lot of good moments in it, but there are some moments that could’ve been better, especially towards the end.
Let me quote something from an article by Mary Green about this film: –
Garrard Conley had just been through 11 days of what he describes as “psychological torture” when his mom pulled the car over and asked him, “Are you going to kill yourself?” He replied, “Yes.”
That scene does not appear in this film. That article talks a lot about what Conley went through and I suggest reading it (Also buy his memoir, I plan on doing that myself) because what’s in there isn’t in this film, or at least it’s so subtle it might as well not be mentioned. The two weeks with a therapist? They don’t bring that up, it’s blended in with the Love In Action group and only feels like it lasts a full week. The film just wants to rush to the big moment in the end (That’s spoiled in the trailer) and it just feels like they don’t want to really delve into the dark side of this conversion therapy, or at least don’t want to delve in deep enough to actually shock people.
In 2007 there was an episode of South Park called “Cartman Sucks” where Butters was sent to a conversion therapy camp and were able to address the religious fundamentalism, the way it affected the kids and how it leads to suicides… South Park handled this topic with the intense focus it needs, Boy Erased is still good but it doesn’t want to push as far as it could’ve. Great performances, great direction, thank goodness they tried to tell this story… maybe next time, don’t make it about a specific person and be prepared to make the audience angry at what is happening to these children because a film about this should be making the audience furious enough to do something to put an end to this practice. I just hope that maybe, despite this film not being as powerful as I was hoping, that it’s powerful enough to maybe move some hearts and get people to fight to end the evil that is Conversion Therapy.