Home videos, car journeys and small town Americana vibes quickly move aside to reveal the harsh security and the even harsher rules of gay conversion therapy. Participants read out increasingly strict requirements in an arresting first 10 minutes: “members must be supervised by staff in all restrooms visits”; “no physical contact with any member at any time apart from the briefest of handshakes.” I think this film might be a little more intense than But I’m A Cheerleader…
Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton, 2018) follows the story of college student Jared (Lucas Hedges) who is convinced by his Baptist preacher father (Russel Crowe) to attend gay conversion therapy. As Jared learns more about the program, seeds of doubt about its legitimacy are planted in his mind. Between these scenes, he remembers the moments that led to this one, and we see flashbacks of Jared’s and his parents’ reactions to his blossoming sexuality.
Top Tip: Watch this film at nighttime: not only is it quite dark (as in literally, turn your brightness up) but its reflective and brooding mood is perfect for an evening viewing.
The use of colour is a clever and concise way of showing the difference between Jared’s two worlds. Life inside the Love In Action centre ー that’s the name of a real-life “ex-gay” ministry that was active until 2019 ー is full of dull beiges, browns and off-whites. The colour tone of non-romantic sepia is muted, cold, and as deliberately repressive as the uniforms participants of the program are forced to wear. To contrast, the grass outside that Jared gets to peek at during the day is a bright green.
And while Jared doesn’t always have the perfect time at college, most scenes (from flashbacks) have a much richer and warmer palette. Interestingly, Jared’s family home, while a touch more colourful, is still quite grey and often dark. The main splashes of colour he sees at home come from the Southern glamour of the outfits worn by his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman).
I think we as a society often find ourselves forgetting what a great actor Nicole Kidman is. In Boy Erased, she is certainly the standout ー even in what is admittedly already a strong cast. Her Southern accent is as sweet as a Georgia peach (do they grow peaches in Arkansas?), saying lines like “he was very… feminine-like, you might say”. Her emotional journey is perhaps the most complex, bridging the divide between both sides of the deeply polarised debate on conversion therapy; soliciting empathy in unexpected places, she always remains boldly believable. Like Jennifer Anniston in Netflix original film Dumplin’ (whose accent is, no shade, not as solid as our Australian queen’s), as the overbearing Southern belle mama, Nicole Kidman steals the show.
The framing of language in this film is an astute way of showing the audience the many shades of manipulation that allowed (and still allow) gay conversion therapy to exist; the staff at Love In Action being just one example, in how they describe the program to the teens and their parents. One scene, a flashback to the day Jared was outed to his parents by a vindictive acquaintance at college, stands out in this regard.
In one particularly heartbreaking conversation therein, Jared asks his mother, in reference to the (heavily implied) queer son of another pastor, “what did they do to him?”. Nancy replies “oh no, you silly thing, they didn’t do anything to him, they did things for him”; a powerful, though of course false, distinction. Nancy tells Jared this in front of a mirror: in a clever directorial flourish, the mirror both reminds us tha she is reflecting back out what she’s been told, and makes us privy to both Hedges’ and Kidman’s facial expressions simultaneously.
A later sequence in this same flashback illustrates my point further. Marshall, Jared’s father, tells his son that he “cannot see a way that you can live under this roof… if you’re going to fundamentally go against the grain of our beliefs” as a lead up to asking him if he wants to change; effectively, he’s threatening to exile him from his whole life if he says no. This menacing aura is only enhanced by the dark lighting and slowly zooming camera onto Marshall’s face. Any consent from Jared ー who is already in a fragile place after having had a bad time at college which led to him being outed ー is gained under false pretences.
Combined with the colourless uniforms, lack of privacy and ban on talking about what happens in Love In Action outside of Love In Action (a la Fight Club), the placing of persuasive and evasive language reveals the program (and conversion therpay everywhere) for what it is: effectively, a cult.
At times, Boy Erased creeps into the territory of fable. If exposing the manipulation techniques and the associated horrors of conversion therapy and thereby warning against it was the aim, then that aim was achieved. However, in doing so, the film panders to audiences in its attempt, becoming a somewhat predictable cautionary tale. In a similar vein, I get the sense that it was made by and for straight people. Research tells me that the former, at least, is true, therefore making the latter more likely.
[Sidenote: Am I being oversensitive if straight director Joel Edgerton choosing to play the most homophobic character in the film leaves a sour taste in my mouth?]
There is nothing inherently wrong creating cinema with queer characters for straight people, but as a queer viewer and reviewer, I did feel like I was being preached at. Though, admittedly, I’d much rather be preached at by Boy Erased than by a Southern Baptist homophobe, so I suppose I should stop complaining.
If you’re an avid Every Gay Movie reader, it shouldn’t surprise you that I think the queer actors playing queer roles do it more authetnically than straight actors and therefore inherently better. Though primarily known as a musician, something about Troye Sivan’s supporting role as Love In Action’s appearingly most compliant attendee captured my attention; that may be the case purely because he is known and because he is queer, but that is still valid. It feels good to see your (albeit tragic) history told to you by your own people.
Biggest Gay Mood: still bleaching your hair even though you’re being forced to attend conversion therapy (looking at you Troye)
For me, Boy Erased’s biggest strength lies in its pacing: somebody call Kacey Musgraves, because this one is a slow burn. Yes the start is engaging and yes it plants you in the main narrative almost immediately, but the film still manages to escalate consistently throughout its two hours ーboth in terms of emotion and plot. The flashbacks are split and placed in such a way to keep the audience engrossed, informed and ー most importantly ー emotionally invested. Layers of story and backstory peel away slowly, building to a gripping climax. The comedown feels mature and reflective, and we see some transformative yet realistic character growth.
The film ends with statistics about the frighteningly permissive legal state of conversion therapy in the US (predictable for a film like this, but I can’t see it ending any other way). Instead of this, I am going to leave you with the shot that lingers with me from an artistic perspective.
Split into three parts, I anticipated what ended up being my favourite scene. In this speckled flashback, after experiencing various traumas both at home and at college, Jared attends a laidback college party and meets Xavier. There is an immediate spark, and Xavier invites him back; later, seeing how timid and fragile Jared is, Xavier insists that nothing has to happen between them. As music fades out, the boys get in bed fully-clothed. Red light, often associated with ideas of lust, shines from Xavier’s side of the bed, but does not reach Jared. Instead, Xavier strokes his face gently, and Jared reciprocates. In an environment of intimate safety, they sleep holding hands.
This scene, for me, was Boy Erased’s most powerful; showing us that, even in lives repressed by cold beiges and greys, you can always find a moment of warmth.