In Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton directs a coming-of-age drama about conversion therapy, the dubious and often destructive practice of attempting to “cure” homosexuality through a combination of half-baked psychological practices and religious rites.
Based in part on the memoir of the same name by Gerrard Conley, the film stars Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons, the son of a preacher (Russell Crowe) and his wife (Nicole Kidman) who, on the advice of other church elders, send their son off to be made straight. Jared meets the head therapist, Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton), a stern but sympathetic man with genuine belief in his mission. The fellow guests/patients/inmates (depending on your view) include Jon (Xavier Dolan), a young boy who refuses all physical contact save for saluting yet shows up daily with self-inflicted bruises. Brandon (played by Flea) is a brash, fierce individual who’s there to train others on how to act in a “masculine” fashion, following the creed that first you act in a certain way, then you become the way you act.
It’s a powerful story, and Hedges, Crowe and especially Kidman do an exemplary job of eliciting empathy. However, the limitations of the narrative come from being so tightly focussed on the self-reflective nature of the memoir. The Sykes character, for example, is little more than a cipher for what’s taking place for Jared. His story is surely ripe for more dramatic exploration, especially given the throwaway revelation told with end-title cards.
This is a deeply complex subject, and while Boy Erased does well to introduce the uninitiated into both the motivations of those engaging in such “treatment” and the effect it can have, it still feels as if too much time is spent on Jared’s journey at the expense of a deeper, richer exploration that would have made for an even more remarkable film.