“It’s not meant to be only an uplifting and inspirational piece of literature… I wanted it to be a little scary.” ~ Garrard Conley. Author of Boy Erased.
The following review contains mild spoilers and the subject merits a trigger warning.
In 2004 Garrard Conley’s parents sent him to gay conversion “therapy.” His 2016 memoir, Boy Erased, recounts the experience and the aftermath. When a film adaptation was announced I had reservations. Some critics warned “this won’t be for LGBT+ audiences. We already know conversion therapy is bad.” There’s another way to look at it. We know the family should leave the haunted house, that the babysitter should stay out of the basement and that Jared is not safe at the “Love in Action” center. But when the film starts the characters don’t realize the danger. They don’t realize they’re in a horror movie.
Boy Erased is a skilled, frightening, and ultimately cathartic film. It is not, technically, a biopic. Director/Screenwriter/Actor Joel Edgerton has changed the names, kept the key events, and ramped up the anxiety. The story taps into primal fears that LGBT+ individuals face during the coming out process.
The early scenes are horrifying. Jared is raped and outed, as Conley was, by a man he trusts at college. He is then threatened with exile by his father. Jared’s dorm and home are no longer safe and he blames himself. He thinks he has no choice but to follow his parents’ orders and enroll in “Love in Action’s” program. Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman find nuance in roles that could have been caricatures.
The “Love in Action” facility is a sterile, gloomy building. It was meticulously recreated for the film down to the typo-ridden manuals. The “therapy” is a mix of religion, genealogy, exercise and public shaming. Head “councilor” Victor Sykes (a self-righteous Joel Edgerton) encourages Jared to re-route his college fund toward an indefinite stay in the Love In Action dorms. The “patients” show a range of psychological responses to the “treatment” including terror (Jesse LaTourette), grief (Britton Sear), enthusiastic compliance (Xavier Dolan), and a subversive gaming of the system (Troye Sivan). Sivan gets the juiciest scene but they all make an impression in their brief screen time.
Lucas Hedges provides a masterclass in listening as he takes in a steady stream of taunts, threats and gas-lighting. We see him grow from shame, to suspicion, to outrage. When he finds his voice, the screen crackles. His third act confrontations with Sykes and his father produce white knuckled suspense.
We’re finally getting happy LGBT+ stories on film. There are even happy films set at conversion camps. With its grim subject matter and triggery rape scene Boy Erased is not one of them. It’s an angry film that builds to a primal roar of defiance. There are quibbles: The soundtrack can be overpowering. A scene that needed to feel romantic falls a little flat. This leaves Jared reading as asexual and without yearnings to fight against. Still I recommend Boy Erased and look forward to reading your thoughts.