Gay conversion therapy is a scam that, not unlike Scientology, credit repair and most work-from-home opportunities, is likely perpetuated by cynical grifters preying on the desperate and naive. We might presume people who fall for them are pathetic and unsophisticated. You can be forgiven for believing what you believe about them.
Yet faith is necessary. We are encouraged to have it, to hold on to it, if we can. We are encouraged, as Russell Crowe’s character points out late in Joel Edgerton’s seriously human Boy Erased, to be humble enough to seek the guidance of those wiser and more experienced than ourselves and to follow their advice. It is not always possible to know the best thing to do for the people we love.
Edgerton’s film is based on the memoir of Arkansan Garrard Conley, who in 2004 entered a Memphis program called Love in Action (LIA), which was supposed to cure him of his nascent gayness. In the film, his character is called Jared Eamons. He’s played by Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) as an earnest, slightly jockish college freshman who is aware of (and disturbed by) his attraction to men but other than a chaste night spent with a boy he finds attractive, hasn’t yet acted on those feelings.
Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) reassures her son, Jared (Lucas Hedges), in Joel Edgerton’s family drama Boy Erased, a lightly fictionalized version of Arkansan Garrard Conley’s story.
He is, however, victimized by a fellow student, who out of his own self-loathing and guilt calls Jared’s parents Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman) to let them know they’re raising a homosexual. This precipitates a family crisis that leads Jared to LIA’s intake area, where he’s forced to give up his phone and the Moleskine notebook (“no journaling,” he’s officiously told) in which he sketches out stories. He’s willing to give himself over to the presumably wiser man who runs this program, Victor Sikes (Edgerton, conscientiously underplaying a role that could have been played otter-sleek and smarmy).
Jared is ready to have this bad part of himself erased.
Of course it doesn’t work that way, and no one should be surprised by the way the story plays out. It’s a bit like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though there’s an interesting day-camp aspect to the treatment.
Jared and most of the other “patients” leave every day at 5 p.m. He spends the evenings with his mother in a nearby motel. Turns out, right now they’re just evaluating him — it may be that it’s best he move into one of the houses on-site and stay for a year. His parents’ money could be put to better use saving his soul than sending him to college to read Oscar Wilde and Vladimir Nabokov.
As absurd as gay conversion therapy may seem — and it is a thoroughly discredited treatment with essentially no standing with mental health professionals — it’s not difficult to see how someone steeped in biblical literalism might see it as a necessary step. Because if homosexuality is an abomination, it has to be choice, right? Because God would not make a being he could not love. Because, as Sykes tells us in his most compelling lecture, people are like dollars — even if we’re wadded up or have pieces torn off, we still retain our value.
If you are raised to believe in certain things, you will likely believe in them unless you find the reality that confronts you irreconcilable with your faith. Then you have a crisis that requires you either to suppress or deny your reality or re-examine your beliefs.
What’s best about this movie is not the rather straightforward story, told in a nonlinear way, or the remarkably calibrated performances from everyone involved, but its insistence on the humanity of all of the characters, even those who only appear for a scene or two to drive the action forward or to offer a poignant gaze. I can’t think of a better ensemble in a recent film than the impeccable Kidman, Crowe, Hedges and Edgerton; the movie is extraordinarily well-cast, down to musician Flea’s menacing sketch of an old convict-come-to-Jesus who helps out around the LIA offices.
We know these people: They are not hicks, they are not even complete and utter charlatans. Most of them are trying to do their best based on the limits of their information and their imagination.
90 Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Flea, Cherry Jones, Jesse LaTourette, Britton Sear, Theodore Pellerin, Joe Alwyn
Director: Joel Edgerton
Rating: R, for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Jared’s family lives in small-town Arkansas — the film isn’t specific about where, but Conley grew up in Cherokee Village and later Mountain Home, and his father sold cars and preached. (His father is now pastor at the Bridge Missionary Baptist Church in Mountain Home.) They are solidly middle-class, with a fine home. They aren’t bigots, they aren’t hypocrites.
They aren’t rubes. They can be forgiven for believing what they believe.
And that’s why movies and books and other works of art are important, because that’s the way we experience the reality of people who aren’t ourselves. How we learn that these other people aren’t alien. That we are more alike than different. It’s how we discover empathy, how we become emotionally intelligent.
Boy Erased is not about abandoning faith, but about modifying it. It’s about crediting the evidence of your own eyes, ears and heart. As the small-town physician (a sparkling Cherry Jones) tells Jared after his father sends him in to have his blood drawn and his testosterone level checked, she knows she’s not going to find anything wrong with him. She’s not going to be able to tell his parents what they want to hear.
Because Jared is perfectly normal.
MovieStyle on 11/16/2018