During my high school years, I had often made an effort to hide the fact that I was queer from many of my peers – even my closest friends and family members. After coming out of the closet, I found myself within a greater state of freedom and yet even some of my biggest fears were also more realized too. I was always worried about what people would be saying to me, given as I had often been living under a conservative environment, and even been made to believe in – even if I never felt most comfortable with what I would be made to say about the world around me. This already feels most fitting for me to talk about as I talk about Boy Erased, because of the very fears that I know conversion therapy would be placing upon many LGBTQ+ individuals all across the world. Which makes talking about Boy Erased especially complicated because there’s another stigma that comes by that is also triggered by the concept of a church-funded conversion therapy. So among many reasons I wanted to see Boy Erased was because of what I hoped it would make the general public understand about what conversion therapy does to people like myself.
Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, many names have also been drastically altered for the screen – with Lucas Hedges playing a character based on Conley, named Jared Eamons. The 19-year-old Jared lives a life like any other American citizen would see him to be, with parents who are dedicated Baptists (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, the latter playing a pastor), but young Jared is still about to discover something more about himself that would only put him in danger around those he loves. This soon prompts his family to send him over to a church-funded gay conversion therapy, where the young Jared confronts his own fears after interacting with other teens who are within the program, seeing face with the head therapist (played by writer-director Joel Edgerton) as he tries to find a way to grow up properly as the person that he is. In trying to capture the very dangers that gay conversion therapy can place upon one’s growth as a person, Joel Edgerton strives for the best intentions, but never seems to stretch beyond that.
I say this because growing up as a queer student in an environment that has set conservative standards, the fear of being sent over to conversion therapy has always recurred in my mind. I didn’t simply feel that I was queer, I always knew that I was – but I lived in an environment that would find a way to deny that aspect of my identity. Watching Boy Erased, I was instantly reminded of many of those bad thoughts, because the idea of conversion therapy is something that just sickens me to my stomach. Joel Edgerton’s film carries that internal anger regarding the idea and lets loose, but there’s also a complicated side to these fears that I’m not entirely sure has been tapped into just yet. Granted, the growth of Jared should be enough to show a viewer how harmful conversion therapy truly is, yet I can’t help but feel as if I think Edgerton only approaches such subject matter only as much as on the surface.
Everything that can be said about the film’s cast, especially Lucas Hedges, warrants the highest of praises that one can show for it. Hedges has been one to deliver a stream of heartbreaking performances since his turn from Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, and you can already feel the fear being instilled into him from his role as Jared Eamons. But you also feel every bit of curiosity growing within him as he is still trying to learn more about his own sexuality and the people he loves most. It’s because of a performance this layered there’s still something present in Boy Erased worth sticking around for, but Edgerton has a way with his actors – and everyone does well enough here, even himself as the homophobic therapist. As you see Jared trying to find his own place in a world that could so easily shun him for being himself, there’s already something more moving arising because Edgerton is so clearly sympathetic to him, because Hedges has so much room to create something so layered because of his own curiosity and how genuine it feels from start to finish.
There’s one particular moment in this that did rub me the wrong way, and it’s been on my mind since I left the screening. It’s only worth discussing because of how the storytelling unveils itself to this moment, but it never sat so well with me. Being based on a true story and capturing the very fears that LGBTQ+ people face from their youth, there’s one moment in the beginning that only feels like it adds more to the stigma that we face – because the curiosity comes forward following what I’m only led to assume is a rape. Yet Edgerton still pokes around as if this whole thing occurred thanks to Jared’s curiosity, and I just felt ugly watching it happen. I know already that this comes from a true story, but I still can’t get over how ugly a moment like this really felt, because of how it’s shown to us. It only struck yet another bad memory for me, something I don’t want to think about again.
Boy Erased should be seen by many to understand those fears that many of us go through under the stigma that is triggered by gay conversion therapy. But at the same time, it’s also a disappointingly surface level exploration that only seems to go as far as great performances from its cast. And granted, for every bit as phenomenal as Lucas Hedges is in this, I still feel like we should have gotten something that was equally layered as the performance that we got out of him. My relationship with this film is an otherwise complicated one, for because of the subject matter, I really wanted to love this film more – because of course I connected with that very feeling of fear that recurs throughout the film when the world does not make a place for people like us. Yet I still admire what Joel Edgerton presents here, because it’s clearly done with good intentions – I just feel like a story of this sort deserved more.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Joel Edgerton
Screenplay by Joel Edgerton, from the memoir by Garrard Conley
Produced by Joel Edgerton, Steve Golin, Kerry Kohansky Roberts
Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, Joel Edgerton
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 114 minutes