BOY ERASED (2018) is a very disturbing movie experience, one that will make you feel uncomfortable throughout, and since it’s a story about gay conversion therapy, that’s exactly how it should be.
BOY ERASED is based on the memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley. It’s the story of a teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the son of a prominent Southern preacher Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) who is sent to a Christian gay conversion camp after he admits to his father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) that he is gay.
Jared goes to the camp willingly because he wants to please his parents. He believes them when they tell him he can change. He doesn’t rebel when they give him the ultimatum that unless he “chooses” not to be gay, he won’t be allowed in their household because homosexuality goes against their core beliefs. And he’s reassured by their words that if he tells them he doesn’t want to be gay, they will help him achieve this goal. Hence, he’s sent to the conversion camp.
But once he gets there and experiences the methods of camp counselor Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) he begins to see things differently, eventually realizing that what they are doing at the camp is not only hurtful and dangerous but also flat out wrong.
BOY ERASED does not dance around the issue.
Indeed, before Jared even enters the camp, he meets with a doctor who tells him in no uncertain terms that there is nothing wrong with him, that he’s a healthy and very normal young man, and that his parents are wrong, that there is nothing abnormal about being gay. But he goes to the camp anyway.
The counselors at the camp teach that being gay is sinful. That to be normal one must stop being gay. According to the counselors, homosexuality is a choice, and the young men and women there can choose not to be gay. Their teaching is tied to Christian principles, and these scenes work to expose the backwardness of many Christian faiths when dealing with homosexuality.
Lucas Hedges delivers another top-notch performance in his young career. Hedges was nominated for an Oscar for his work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016), and he was also memorable in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). Here, as Jared, Hedges shows both the character’s vulnerabilities and later his resolve when he realizes he’s not abnormal, and that he doesn’t have to change.
Nicole Kidman is also excellent as Jared’s mother Nancy, who goes against her husband when she supports her son and removes him from the camp. She later explains her position to her son by saying, “I love God, but I also love my son.”
Russell Crowe, who looks like he doubled his weight for this role, makes for a surprisingly low-key and soft-spoken Southern preacher. While he does not support his son, he resists incendiary language.
In a key supporting role, Joel Edgerton is effective as camp counselor Victor Sykes. There’s something suffocating about Victor, as he and the other counselors speak untruths about the young men and women in their care. Their lack of knowledge is wince-inducing. Edgerton nails the character.
Joel Edgerton also directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Garrard Conley, and he succeeds on all three fronts here. The screenplay pulls no punches. It makes its point about gay conversion camps as clear as day.
Edgerton also wrote and directed THE GIFT (2015), a thriller in which he co-starred with Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. I liked THE GIFT a lot, and BOY ERASED, while a very different movie, is also a much better movie. Combined with his performances in such movies as IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), BLACK MASS (2015), and THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), Joel Edgerton is becoming one of the most talented actor/writers/directors working today.
Edgerton keeps BOY ERASED grounded in reality. Jared is depicted at first as a young man who knows he’s attracted to boys but because he is young accepts the idea his parents present that it’s something he can control and change. It’s only after he sees the methods of the counselors, methods that continually look for false reasons of anger and guilt to explain gay feelings, when he knows that anger and guilt have nothing to do with his feelings towards other males, that he begins to see the truth, that his feelings are not abnormal. Jared’s journey is explained naturally and steadily.
Jared’s parents do not act in ways that seem phony or forced. His mother seems to know from the very beginning that they are making a mistake and that there is nothing wrong with her son, which is why later she is able to easily accept him. His father is deeply invested in his vocation as a Christian minister and as such cannot fathom that homosexuality isn’t something that is sinful, yet it’s clear how much pain he feels at the notion of losing his son.
And lastly the camp itself is exposed as a group of Christian men with little or no professional experience in psychology or medicine who wield as their authority the Bible.
BOY ERASED is as disturbing as it is important. There are still many states which allow gay conversion therapy, and if there’s one thing this movie does well, it’s to show the ludicrousness and dangers of the practice.