Talk about the politics of fear. What kind of demonic cult would subject its own impressionable children to shame and torment in order to force them into its own rigid code of behavior?
If you’re thinking Jim Jones or Charles Manson, think again. The culprits are a fear-mongering group of Baptist church elders convinced they’re doing the lord’s work in Boy Erased, a harrowing look inside the practice of so-called “gay conversion therapy” in small-town America.
Written and directed by co-star Joel Edgerton (who gives himself one of the juiciest supporting roles), the movie is adapted from the book Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family, by Garrard Conley. Disturbing as only a true story can be, it recounts the experiences of a teenaged college freshman still trying to figure out his own identity who’s forced into a draconian program to drive the “sin” out of him. Besides exposing the wrong-headed horrors of the program itself, the story delivers a tutorial for resistance in the way the young protagonist manages to find his own moral compass—at last—and stick to it, in spite of daunting pressure to conform.
Lucas Hedges stars as Jared, only son of folksy-seeming but strict Baptist pastor Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), at a small-town Arkansas church. Jared’s mom Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is the perfectly coiffed and manicured pastor’s wife; she loves her son to pieces, but is in all ways obedient to her husband.
They’re a close, loving family until Jared’s first semester at college, where he has a brutal encounter with an upperclassman. Fleeing for the security of home, he’s shocked to learn his parents have been told he was involved in some sort of scandalous liaison. Seeking advice from the church elders, his father enrolls him in a program called Love In Action. His mom drives him to the center where the program takes place in another town, and rents a hotel room nearby. It’s supposed to last 12 days.
First, they isolate the kids from their families; no phone calls or texts are allowed during the day, and the inmates are forbidden to discuss what goes on in the program with outsiders—especially their parents. Herded around by burly henchmen, the kids are subjected to the psychological abuse of chief interrogator Victor Sykes (Edgerton), a bullying martinet under a facade of reasonableness who insists that homosexuality is a “choice,” forces them to always refer to it as a “sin,” and declares, “God can’t love you the way you are now.”
Budding writer Jared’s notebook is confiscated upon entry, and scrutinized for any dubious content. When it’s returned to him, half of his stories have been ripped out. Yet, when it’s his turn to get up and read the confession everyone in the program is required to write, describing the nature of their sins, Jared’s isn’t salacious enough for Sykes, who keeps probing him for more lurid details.
The irony is that Jared is so inexperienced, he can’t even make up the kind of stuff his interrogators want to hear. The private mantra whispered among the inmates —“Fake it ’til you make it”— takes on a more sinister meaning; not to achieve heterosexuality, but survive the program. (Some don’t, as punishments shift from psychological bullying to the corporeal.) Ever-dutiful Jared tries to ignore the red flags and “get better”—until Sykes starts pressuring him to ditch college and spend a year imprisoned in the program instead.
It’s the insider’s view of this predatory “therapy” that gives the movie its infuriating power. Jared isn’t an envelope-pushing rebel, he’s just trying to be a good kid, at a most vulnerable time in his life when he’s still trying to understand who he is. The zealous way the adults in charge try to to snuff out (or erase) what they fear in him is chilling. His solitary journey to trust his own judgment and determine right from wrong is heroic.
*** (out of for)
With Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Joel Edgerton. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. From the book by Garrard Conley. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 114 minutes.