Less than a century ago, it was common to force children who were born left-handed to learn to use their right hand instead of doing what came naturally.
Once sanity replaced cruelty on this issue, the People Who Think Everyone Should Be Like Us, or PWTESBLU, had to seek new targets to bludgeon into conformity. They couldn’t quite change anyone’s skin color, and their aggressive efforts to convert folks to their religions turned more people against organized religion instead.
But there was still sexual orientation.
The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, but that didn’t stop the PWTESBLU. Citing biblical quotations, as they had in defending slavery, segregation and women’s subservience to men, they preached that same-sex attraction is a sin but these sinners could change.
In 1973, we also saw the formation of Love in Action, one of the more prominent organizations offering “conversion therapy” to “pray away the gay.” Its name changed to Restoration Path in 2012.
While other films on the subject (1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader, 2018’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post) used fictional names for their conversion programs, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, out Friday, calls Love in Action by its name because that’s where Garrard Conley was sent as a teenager. Though he’s called Jared Eamons here, the movie is based on Conley’s 2016 memoir and the events are basically shown as he described them.
Jared, played by Lucas Hedges, is the son of an Arkansas Baptist preacher, Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), and his wife, Nancy (Nicole Kidman). The film begins with Jared’s arrival at Love in Action’s day treatment center, where his reception is like that of a convict being admitted to prison. His cellphone and other personal belongings are taken away to be searched for clues to his misdeeds. The official policy, “No one is to discuss the therapy outside these walls,” sounds suspiciously like Fight Club.
The events from Jared’s past that brought him here are shown in flashbacks that are inserted somewhat confusingly until you get used to the pattern. They involve encounters with two young men, one of whom outs Jared to his parents for reasons that make little sense.
Marshall consults two older, wiser ministers, who recommend conversion therapy for the boy. It’s 2004, yes, but it’s also Arkansas; and even in 2018, 36 states — including Florida — still allow minors to be subjected to conversion therapy.
Most of the story alternates between Jared’s time in therapy and time spent with his parents. Marshall believes he’s doing the right thing, while Nancy is more open-minded but close-mouthed.
Besides being a pastor, Marshall operates a Ford dealership. Ironically, the director of the Love in Action facility, Victor Sykes (Edgerton, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Conley), spends a lot of time preaching but privately acts like a slimy salesman. Is he sincere in his beliefs, or is he just in it for the money?
His young victims meet in what looks like a congregation-therapy group, where they’re forced to participate in exercises that range from humiliating to torturous. It’s obvious how suicides have resulted from this kind of therapy in real life.
There aren’t as many rebels as in the earlier films cited above, but Gary (Troye Sivan) obviously speaks for more than himself when he advises Jared to “Play the part.” Pop star Sivan, one of the openly gay performers (including Cherry Jones and Xavier Dolan) in the film, also contributes a song, Revelation, that’s heard twice.
Boy Erased is a fair and balanced condemnation of conversion therapy. Its emotional impact comes from what’s below the low-key surface. Hedges exhibits very little personality, understandable for a young man trying not to show the world who he is. Kidman’s role is largely reactive, until she comes into her own near the end. Crowe is less fire-and-brimstone than you’d expect of a Southern Baptist preacher, probably so we believe he’s misguided, not evil.
That this solid drama is more in-your-brain than in-your-face may work against it when it comes to award recognition, but anyone who has had experience with conversion therapy or knows someone who has will find instead that it’s in-your-gut. I wouldn’t change it.
Steve Warren is a tbt* correspondent. Contact him at [email protected]
Director: Joel Edgerton
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, Cherry Jones
Screenplay: Garrard Conley, Joel Edgerton
Rating: R; for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use
Running time: 114 minutes
Showtimes at Tampa Theatre: 7 and 9:45 p.m. Friday, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Monday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.