Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.
At first, the core of “Boy Erased” appears to be a call to action. A statistic citing that gay conversion therapy is still legal in 36 states appears onscreen before the end credits. While this fact is absolutely relevant to the film, it would suggest that “Boy Erased,” directed by Joel Edgerton, is a barefaced exposé on the horrors of gay conversion therapy when, in reality, it is not. The film criticizes conversion therapy; however, “Boy Erased” seeks to explore the effects of living in a community that denounces homosexuality with a more nuanced tone by following protagonist Jared Eamons’ (Lucas Hedges) compelling internal struggle. It weighs the traditions of Jared’s Arkansas family and community with his sexuality, and therefore asserts that the morals driving conversion therapy are, in fact, a complicated issue. The film ultimately condemns the practices depicted in its gay conversion therapy program; however, it does so in a subtler, and ultimately more powerful, way by focusing on Jared’s growth as a character.
“Boy Erased” is based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name. The film follows Jared’s experience at Love in Action, a therapy program intended to ‘cure’ participants of their homosexuality. Jared’s parents, Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist preacher, enroll him in the program after Jared admits his attraction to men — a conversation that is not so much a coming out scene as a beginning of a crisis for Jared’s family. As Jared goes through the program, he is exposed to the physically and emotionally abusive teachings of Victor Sykes (Edgerton), all practiced in the name of faith, and learns to see the program for what it truly is.
Jared’s story is not just about his time in the program. As a Christian and son of a preacher, Jared’s realization of his sexuality is colored by his relationships with his parents, his experiences in high school and college prior to attending Love in Action — including a horrifying sexual assault by his classmate — and his relationship with his faith. “Boy Erased” therefore not only seeks to expose the horrors of gay conversion therapy, but sheds light on the traumatizing inner battle of negotiating faith and upbringing with sexuality.
The film exposes this battle powerfully through its depiction of Jared’s personal evolution throughout the film, the nuances of which are expertly portrayed by Hedges. At the beginning of the program, Jared is completely on board — he feels that his sexuality is a sin and is willing to go through the conversion program to ‘fix’ himself. His mother drops him off at Love in Action every morning as though she were dropping a child off at camp. The normalcy of this routine makes the program feel more disturbing. “Boy Erased” shows how ingrained homophobia is in certain religious communities, instead of relying on shock value to condemn conversion programs. The film is, no doubt, a criticism of gay conversion therapy, but this subtler approach allows the film to fully explore its complicated effects on Jared, instead of becoming a flat exposé about its barbarism and immorality.
The film’s tone is accordingly subdued. The lights in Jared’s house seem to be perpetually dimmed and the attendees of Love in Action all wear colorless, modest clothing, evoking an appropriate sense of conformity within the program. This dull visual setting speaks to the film’s approach to exposing the program — by presenting Sykes’ methods against such a muted background, it makes sense that his radicalism might not be so obvious to Jared at first.
Other attendees in the program represent different opinions on the program and, in turn, reflect Jared’s own struggle to understand himself. Jon (Xavier Dolan), for example, feels that his sexuality is something to be fixed and believes wholeheartedly in the efficacy of the program. Gary (Troye Sivan) advises Jared to act the part and cooperate until he can be released from the program, while Cameron (Britton Sear) suffers most from his unwillingness to participate in Sykes’s methods. These perspectives show the extent to which gay conversion programs remain prevalent within communities with strong ties to religion, including Christianity.
By the end of the film, Jared has become fully aware of the program’s horrors, as has Nancy, whose journey to accept her son’s sexuality, despite her husband’s wishes, is almost as poignant as Jared’s own experiences. Jared, in turn, learns to embrace his sexuality, and a four-year time jump in the denouement reveals him living in New York having just written an article about his experiences at Love in Action, and eventually confronting his father, who still won’t accept that his son is gay. In the end, even as “Boy Erased” seeks to denounce the practice of gay conversion therapy, the movie is, at its core, a story about Jared’s own struggles coming to terms with his sexuality within a community that condemns him for it.