Forced* conversion therapy is bad. You either believe this or you (at least tacitly) advocate for the extermination of queerness, which makes you a bigot. This is a black-and-white matter, and, given the havoc attempts at turning queer youth straight wreaks on lives, it seems to gay old me that this is also a matter of right and wrong.
(*I use the “forced” qualifier because I believe in people’s right to pursue what they consider to be their ideal life paths. So even if conversion therapy by virtually all reliable accounts is a doomed venture, it is a different thing to force a person whose brain is still developing to amputate part of their emotional core than it is to elect to do so as a grown adult. While not interfering with the well-being of others, people have the right to fuck up their lives in whatever way they want. This is closest I can conceive to there being a middle ground on this issue.)
Joel Edgerton’s new conversion-therapy drama, Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, preaches to the choir, which in this case happens to be predominantly secular. This is a stern, serious, self-righteous movie made for and by people who are against conversion therapy. Very little here is surprising—and that’s the problem. Those who have been paying attention have already heard stories like this repeatedly in the past few years, and on top of that, this is a rather mild telling.
College-aged protagonist Jared Eamons (the character based on Conley that’s played by Lucas Hedges) spends just a brief period of time at the Love in Action ex-gay program (less than two weeks). It is an oppressive institution, but the scars it leaves are invisible for the most part. The warfare here is merely psychological. The more extreme aspects of conversion therapy—electroshock and aversion therapy like the application of heat, ice, and electricity to the bodies of subjects while they watch gay porn—are not represented in Boy Erased. Jared and the other queer young people in his therapy group are brow-beaten, asked invasive questions, embarrassed for deviating from gender norms, and criticized.
The most bizarre lesson comes in the form of a mock funeral with one of the several undercooked queer-kid characters, during which he’s struck repeatedly with a Bible. It’s sad stuff, criminal really, but it seems handpicked to be digestible, to upset audiences just enough so that they can feel it but not so much as to carry it with them out of the theater. Boy Erased refuses to challenge anything but the most obvious fallacies, nor does it have the levity of this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which was audacious enough to find comedy in the absurdity of conversion therapy’s philosophy and practices. Boy Erased wants to be important, but more than that liked. It is dictionary-definition Oscar bait.
I’m afraid there’s nothing in the movie that makes the argument against conversion therapy unimpeachable for those who already believe in its usefulness. If they even make it to the theater in the first place, people who think one can pray the gay away will likely see a character who just didn’t try hard enough and made it through conversion therapy unscathed. Anyone who’s tried to change as elemental a part of themselves as their sexuality (or possesses the degree of empathy to imagine doing so) knows that it is as cruel as it is futile. But the fact of the matter is that this country is teeming with people who nonetheless hold the belief that such change is possible, and Boy Erased is not the movie that will convince them otherwise.
What irritated me more than the spinning of the wheels for the sake of accolades under the guise of social consciousness and/or justice, though, is the extent to which Jared is user-friendly by hetero mainstream standards. He’s part of a longstanding Hollywood practice of deleting the sex from sexuality. Jared is practically virginal—in a moral inventory he’s tasked with enumerating at Love in Action, he includes “I had thoughts of men,” and “At college, I held the hand of a boy and I spent the night in his bed... We did nothing more.” He’s raped in the movie by a friend in college on whom he clearly has a crush—director/writer Joel Edgerton’s bait-and-switch setup, which starts out with sexy dorm-room tension between bros and results in a violent assault, left a terrible taste in my mouth. It just strikes me as cheap. The one time the movie manages to shock, it’s to push its character away from the pleasure of gay sex. This is, apparently, true to Conley’s real-life experience, though the way the scene unfolds is, it seems, Edgerton’s invention as Conley writes in his memoir that he doesn’t remember many details of his rape.
“Added to all of this shame was the knowledge that I had secretly pined for the opportunity to be this close to another man, and it was extremely difficult after my experience with David to consider gay sex as anything other than rape,” writes Conley, the son of a Baptist minister. “Was this what my church had been warning me about the whole time? And if this was the punishment I had received on earth, how much worse was it going to be in the afterlife?”
I do not mean to question Conley’s account or his response, but I also do not think that it’s a coincidence that a gay man who regards sex so warily is the one who is getting the huge platform to tell his story (ditto that he’s white, male, able-bodied, cisgender, middle class, etc.). Imagine Jared as a slut, a cute twink who already lost count of the amount of dicks he’s sucked by his early 20s. Would audiences be able to swallow that? Could they still see him as someone worthy of sympathy? Would all the bleeding-heart liberals still be on board with the idea that ironing out the gay of him was such a terrible thing?
What I dislike most about telling this story through a mostly sexless character is that it aligns itself with the love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin ethos espoused by the religious zealots who champion conversion therapy. It gives a pass to those who think gay people are fine, but that gay sex is gross. It serves the comfort of straight people (and I suppose the very shameful queers in the audience), and Jesus Christ, haven’t they already been served enough? It’s all very predictable, down to Edgerton’s casting of out entertainers like pop singer Troye Sivan and director Xavier Dolan to pad out the therapy group, giving them virtually nothing to do but stand around and be seen. Look closer and you realize that they’re the fruits of woke gesturing. “I wanted representation to be part of that group,” Edgerton told The Wrap. At the movie’s center is Hedges who recently came out as “not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual” and said, more recently, “I’m hesitant at the same time to suddenly lump myself in with... [the LGBTQ] community because... I don’t feel as though I’ve been challenged in the same ways that members of the LGBTQ community have been in their lives.”
Nicole Kidman is also there in a wig that looks like it could be named “The Dolly” (I don’t imagine being too surprised at how much it costs to look this cheap). During a climactic moment, her character confronts Love in Action’s head instructor, Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton), by asking, “What are your actual qualifications, Mr. Sykes? I never asked.” She put her child’s life in this man’s hands and didn’t bother to ask him about the ingredients in his snake oil. The movie ultimately positions her acceptance of her gay son as some kind of moving triumph, but given her flagrant negligence, that felt like an imposition.
Incidentally, that Wrap interview with Edgerton is pretty bizarre for a few reasons. He says he wasn’t able to ask direct questions about his cast’s sexuality, but that with Hedges “there was an ‘I don’t know’ situation.” So how did he know that Hedges didn’t know? He also says, presumably speaking from the point of view of a straight actor, that despite having played a gay character in the past, he doesn’t know if he’d be allowed to do so today. “Would people let us?” he wonders after having made reference to social media platforms like Twitter advancing the representation agenda, which asks that queer actors play queer characters. But the thing is that—and here’s a spoiler for a title card that comes on the screen between the end of the film and its closing credits—the former Love in Action executive director and instructor of Conley on which Edgerton’s character is based, John Smid, married a man in 2014 after leaving the organization in 2008 (Love in Action officially closed in 2012). That means, in fact, Edgerton does play a gay man in this movie, just a closeted one. This is just to say that I just don’t have a lot of faith in Edgerton knowing what he’s talking about or his ability to make an adequately complex movie about queer experience.
In fact, a movie about Smid in his gay-exorcizing heyday would be fascinating. How much of his own bullshit did he believe? What did his struggles look like? What did his sex life look like? Did he really think taking a scientific approach to pseudo-science would end well for anyone? To my knowledge, that story has yet to be told in any mainstream venue, and while it would be a challenge in virtually every capacity, it’s one audiences deserve to be offered, whether or not they’re up for it.
Boy Erased hits theaters on November 2.