Boy Erased *****
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan
Director: Joel Edgerton
Gay conversion camps have long been a figure of ridicule. Films like But I'm A Cheerleader have led to the impression that when LGBT teens are being sent to convert themselves from homosexuality to “the right path” they will be staying in a holiday camp-esque complex in which they'll be sleeping in log cabins in the picturesque countryside where they’ll be housed with others their age, depriving themselves but secretly exploring their sexuality. The reality is that these places could not be further from this. In last year’s The Miseducation Of Cameron Post we saw a group of LGBT teens staying at such a camp, but their experience was far from a holiday. And this year, we have Boy Erased, which is an even further removed version of this reality, seemingly more like a daycare facility in which the participants check in and spend their days being indoctrinated by religious leaders, before heading back to their hotels, giving the illusion of free will.
Garrard (Hedges) is gay and the son of a Evangelist (Crowe). Known in the community for being upstanding citizens, the family is held up by their community as paradigms of Christian virtue and values. But when outed by a malicious classmate, his father is mortified when he discovers that his son might be gay. Under the advice of his pastor and community, he decides to send his son to Love In Action, a facility designed to “pray the gay away”, with its leader Victor (Edgerton) masquerading as a psychologist. Staying in a hotel with his mother (Kidman) while undergoing treatment, Garrard must discover why he is really there and whether he wants to be converted in the first place.
Based on the 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley of the same name, the film does a very good job at finding a clear and concise narrative, where the book does not. The book hinges around a string of small incidents that ramble through Conley’s time at LIA, but Edgerton’s script has compiled these as a coherent set of dominos that, despite Garrard’s short time at the institution, underline the increasing list of abuses that are piled on all of its victims. Initially, all of the programme’s participants are willing initiates on the course, but when Victor insists that they do not talk about the content of their sessions with their families outside the compound, it becomes pretty clear both to the audience and the initiates that what they are part of is not a treatment sanctioned by anyone. In fact, with its jumble of psycho-babble and harsh religious military-esque gay-shaming, you can find nothing within its curriculum that is either scientifically or religiously justifiable. Instead, it’s just a jumble of ideas that exist solely to exert power over impressionable and vulnerable young people.
Hedges delivers a moving performance as Garrard, clean-cut and eager to please, who really doesn’t want to disappoint his family when he knows that who he is can only do that. Kidman gives an understated but refined performance as the Southern Christian belle, while Crowe is stoically uncompromising as the father who places belief before his family. With strong support from Canadian Queer Cinema auteur Xavier Dolan and youth icon Troye Sivan, this is a delightfully Queer movie made by an ally who has clearly done his research and who also stars as the detestably charming Victor himself.
There is a stark realism to the film’s palate, where characters are dressed in shirts and chinos and gender-appropriate garments, where they blend in with the magnolia walls and bland office-furniture whose normalcy feels threatening in its blandness. In a flashback scene we see Garrard encounter an art student, whose apartment is crammed with art and creativity, where he is freedom of expression is everything LIA stands against. By shutting the inmates in a featureless room and making them stay in faceless hotels, away from their homes and everything that makes them who they are, the programme is doing everything it can to bleach the individuality out of them and leave them pliable, numb and empty.
The abuse inflicted on these young people is emotional attrition. But their parents are willing to inflict these cruelties in order to overcome a “greater evil”. As someone who went through a comparable experience myself in my teens, albeit short, this clean-cut Christianity in which hatred is presented as love is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It’s easy to see Garrard’s compliance as making him partially responsible for what happens to him, but as time passes it becomes clearer and clearer that he’s simply trying to please his father. He doesn’t want to be the family’s black sheep, but how much can he compromise his own happiness for his father’s ideals?
This is a tightly wound drama that packs an emotional punch. As movies about institutionalised abuse, this is up there with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted. In the post-script just before the final credits, we learn that *SPOILER* the real Victor is now married to another man and while it’s easy to scoff at the scale of this hypocrisy, the film adeptly encapsulates the complexity of the shame so many LGBT people experience and the multitude of ways this can manifest itself. You’re likely to catch yourself wincing through the later stages of the film, but this is by far the strongest movie made so far about these supposed conversion therapies.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS, RELEASED BY FOCUS FEATURES.