An eighteen year old boy thinks he might be gay.
When his father, a baptist minister, learns of it, he has his son unceremoniously deposited in a ‘school’ for conversion therapy. Here, the boy is subjected to a daily diet of verbal abuse, bullying and indoctrination. This may sound like the plot of some sinister dystopian novel, but Boy Erased is based upon the real life experiences of Garrard Conley, who underwent just such an ordeal in the early 2000s. The film bears comparison with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, which related a similarly distressing tale.
In this version of Conley’s story, Garrard is Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), hiding his sexuality from his domineering father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and his protective mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman). But Marshall begins to have suspicions about his son when the boy’s relationship with a local girl fizzles out and, when Jared returns unexpectedly from college after being raped by one of his classmates, the truth soon emerges.
Jared finds his day-to-day life handed over to the harsh ministrations of Chief Therapist at ‘Love in Action,’ Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film, based on Conley’s memoir). Jared doesn’t protest his harsh treatment – on the contrary, he tries his best to fit in at the school, where he’s surrounded by a whole collection of other characters receiving ‘therapy’. Some of the inmates accept the religious hogwash they are being fed and do their best to change their ways – and then there are those, like Anders (Devin Michael), who have learned to play the system and convince their teachers that they are actually ‘making progress.’
To give the film its due, it’s nicely nuanced. Crowe’s character, for instance, isn’t the stereotyped tub-thumper he could so easily have been, but is shown to be a loving father, struggling with the tenets of a religion in which he truly believes, and one that he has devoted most of his life to teaching. And Kidman’s Nancy – another in a whole series of chameleonic screen characters – is perhaps the film’s strongest suit, the scenes between mother and son having particular resonance. When Nancy finally decides to stand up for Jared’s rights, it’s a moment to be celebrated.
While it may seem incredible that such institutions can be allowed to exist in the modern age, the truth is that they can and do – I have recently heard testimony to the existence of just such a place in the UK – and Boy Erased makes a compelling argument for their total eradication.
A harrowing tale, but one worth telling.