This year we’ve received a slew of queer films. From Rafiki, the defiant lesbian romance, to Love, Simon, the feel-good adolescent dramedy, queer storytelling is finding its place in our cultural landscape.
Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s adaptation of Garrard Conley’s best-selling memoir, is the most recent. It comes on the heels of The Miseducation of Cameron Post which similarly tackled the practice of conversion therapy—a frightening blend of righteous religious rhetoric and faithless science which has been described, and consequently condemned, by the United Nations as torture and discredited by psychiatrists across the world.
Boy Erased follows 19-year-old Jared, the son of a Baptist pastor, as he enters a 12-day outpatient homosexual conversion therapy program perversely called “Love in Action”. The film oscillates between Jared’s past and present, and Edgerton manages the tonal transitions aptly as seemingly ludicrous scenes juxtapose others that are disquieting.
Lucas Hedges portrays Jared, and pertinently locates the complexities of the closet—the desire, subsequent confusion, and inevitable pain. Russell Crowe is convincing as Jared’s father, Marshall Eamons, but he is eclipsed by Nicole Kidman’s performance as his wife, Nancy. Beneath the quiffed, blonde hair, excessively adorned outfits, and the distinct cross ever-resting on her chest, Nancy is a woman conflicted by a fierce maternal desire to protect her son and the punitive demands of her faith.
Perhaps this is the most compelling dimension of Boy Erased: the care it takes presenting the Eamon family and other characters, attempting to reveal how complicated each of them are. This exploration of subjectivity asks more of its audience than it tells; but, in doing so, Edgerton has created a piece of cinema that shouldn’t be easily forgotten.
There is also an unforgettable, eclectic cast assembled for the characters surrounding Jared at the “Love in Action” facility, including pop icon Troye Sivan and filmmaker Xavier Dolan—each uniquely contributing to various demanding scenes. Actors Britton Sear and Joe Alwyn, in particular, deliver their characters with lingering effect.
Edgerton plays Victor Sykes, the director of the program, and masters the monstrosity but subtle instability required of the role. At the facility, Jared and the others are forced to take “moral inventory” of their past homosexual behaviour—which is defined as a sinful decision—confess this and participate in discussion.
Their treatment involves an array of other activities, and as the violence—which takes form in subtle acts of homophobia, alarming psychological brutality, and physical abuse—develops throughout the film, it is done so carefully.
The original score matches this. Composed by Danny Benasi and Saunder Jurriaans, it carries the film through its biblical heights and emotional lows. It also includes an original song, performed by Sivan and Jónsi, titled Revelation.
Aesthetically, the film is muted, which reflects the early 2000s timeframe and Bible-belt setting. But it’s message about conversion therapy traverses the decades since Conley endured it. As a coda before the credits roll informs, 36 American states have not banned the torturous practice.
Here, in Australia, only Victoria has implemented a ban, and when current Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about a nation-wide ban the devout Christian said that it’s not an issue for him. This led Chris Csabs, a survivor of the practice, to amass more than 55,000 signatories on a petition for Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten ahead of the next election.
The damage conversion therapy has caused is immeasurable; it needs to be addressed, and Boy Erased is a compelling reminder of this.
The film has been levelled by a few critics for varying reasons—and not without reason, either. Perhaps I, a queer-raised-Catholic, have viewed it through rainbow-tinted glasses, but Boy Erased was significant.
When the final scenes of the film are carried into the credits and Sivan’s voice echoes through them as he sings: “Won’t you liberate me now, from a holy world,” with quiet power—there aren’t adequate words to describe the emotions it evokes.
The queer community has spent the majority of history being erased and I am only grateful that we have written and are writing ourselves out of that. If this film does nothing else but contribute to the proliferation of queer storytelling, then Conley and Edgerton have triumphed.
Boy Erased is in Australian cinemas today.