Boy Erased Review: A thought-provoking film about sexual identity and religious hypocrisy
A highly thought-provoking film on sexual identity, religious hypocrisy, and basic ethics, that needs our urgent and undivided attention
Edgerton’s Boy Erased is based on Garrard Conley's 2016 memoir that raised pertinent questions surrounding the controversial use of gay conversion therapy to “cure” people of homosexuality. The adaptation is an excellent, sensitive, and often uncomfortable exploration into matters such as sexual identity, mental blocks formed due to a conservative upbringing, the Church’s regressive stance on personal/individual freedom, and the unfortunate truth behind the religion’s failure to accept that having a sexual orientation other than heterosexuality, is neither a mental illness nor a crime. And when I say crime, I mean morally and ethically, because legality is a function of power – and may have nothing to do with what’s right or not.
Director: Joel Edgerton
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Joel Edgerton, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Flea
Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the only son of Arkansas natives, Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman). Apart from owning a car dealership, his father is also a respected preacher. Jared is gay, but he keeps this from his parents and high school girlfriend, fearing judgement and his own conflicted thoughts on homosexuality. Though conservative in matters of religion and God, the Marshall family is a loving and encouraging one. Just before Jared moves to college, he abruptly breaks up with his girlfriend. Once there, he is sexually assaulted by his male friend after a late-night run. His parents get wind of the event and confront him. He tells them he was raped, but also admits that he has been gay for as long as he can remember. Marshall calls two senior members of the church over to the house, and on their advice, and on Jared’s reluctant approval, signs the boy up for a gay conversion therapy programme.
The institute is somewhat like an army boot camp for those who have ‘fallen prey to sin’. Attendees are not allowed to carry any personal belongings beyond the reception area and aren’t permitted to discuss what goes on at the facility even with their parents. Sessions are headed by Victor Sykes (and a small team of assistants), who counsels his wards to accept their sins and repent before God. Sykes believes that any kind of aberration (same-sex relations/homosexuality, pornography, alcoholism, drug abuse, gang affiliations, etc) can be traced back to a family member…that it somehow runs in the blood. Though sold on the initial rhetoric, Jared begins questioning Sykes’ unethical treatment of the attendees, confronting in the bargain, the programme’s inevitable hypocrisy.
Halfway through Boy Erased, I was reminded of two films in particular – Spotlight and Moonlight. Though not quite as affecting as the aforementioned titles, Joel Edgerton’s feature does touch upon some common themes like sexual identity and religious hypocrisy in matters of ethics/morals. Sensitively told and heavily character-driven, the film, through its protagonist, succeeds in the deft handling of its subject manner.
Boy Erased makes us think deeply about how much at odds religion is with the choices and motivations of the individual. Not just does it encourage blind faith over logical reasoning, it also brands people who don’t fit into its limited boxes as abnormal or aberrant. The film has a strong cameo by Red Hot Chili Peppers bass guitarist, Flea, who plays a now-reformed ‘sinner’ counseling/motivating the kids like some scary drill sergeant.
Scenes that unfold with each teenager being made to go up on stage and confess (minute details of their supposedly tainted thoughts and actions) to the group, sometimes even under extreme duress by Sykes, make a lasting impression on the psyche, and are particularly troubling to watch. The narrative achieves an incredible depth and sensitivity thanks to a superlative lead performance by Lucas Hedges. As we peek into Jared’s life before and after the attempted conversion therapy, his past brushes with sexual identity and love out in the open, the audience has a chance to empathise with the kind young man’s struggles.
Perhaps Edgerton’s portrayal of Victor Sykes could have been more powerful or charismatic or both. Such evangelical preachers who double as pseudo psychologists often have an intense manner about them that weighs heavily on impressionable minds. And though Edgerton’s acting intensity may have been found a tad wanting in Boy Erased, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s made a highly thought-provoking film that needs our urgent and undivided attention.