Focus Features (2018) 115 min. R
Director: Joel Edgerton
Screenplay: Joel Edgerton based on Boy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley
Cinematography: Eduard Grau; Editing: Jay Rabinowitz; Production Design: Chad Keith; Art Direction: Jonathan Guggenheim; Costumes: Trish Summerville; Score: Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Stars: Lucas Hedges (Jared Eamons), Nicole Kidman (Nancy Eamons), Russell Crowe (Marshall Eamons), Joel Edgerton (Victor Sykes), Joe Alwyn (Henry), Théodore Pellerin (Xavier), Xavier Dolan (Jon), Troye Sivan (Gary), Britton Sear (Cameron), Flea (Brandon), Emily Hinkler (Lee), Jesse LaTourette (Sarah), David Joseph Craig (Michael), Madelyn Cline (Chloe), Cherry Jones (Dr. Muldoon)
A couple years ago cinemas were inundated by a flap of “Girl” movies (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Girl on the Train, Gone Girl), and Boy Erased is not to be confused with that other “Boy” movie in circulation last season, the similarly titled Beautiful Boy, though there are superficial similarities. Both focus on the father-son conflict, with the older man having his son institutionalized to ‘save’ him from what he sees as a self-destructive lifestyle. Boy Erased even relies on a similar gambit of home movie montages, introducing us to the boy when he was still, well, a boy, at a prepubescent stage in life, allowing audiences bonding time before his sexuality need become an alienating factor.
In a shrewd move, Boy Erased starts at the beginning, with Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) as a carrot-topped tyke. Kicking things off in this way feeds into themes that will become relevant later on, concerning what early social and parental imprints helped shape his character, turning him into the boy he became. It’s these very etchings made on his tabula rosa that are subsequently seen as needing erased by his religious order, rewinding things back to a blank slate to properly recondition him. While we’re not afforded enough time to spend with him during this formative early development, the setting immediately puts us in mind of reeducation camps. Such as when Jared’s grade school teacher asks what he wants to be when he grows up, and we’re thinking the last thing he would ever say would be ‘gay,’ even if the word were in his vocabulary.
In truth Boy Erased, adapted by director Joel Edgerton from Garrard Conley’s autobiographical Boy Erased: A Memoir, concerning his emotionally tortuous experience as a teenager (renamed Jared here), sent by his concerned, fundamentalist parents (Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman) to a gay conversion camp after he’s outed by a classmate, wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I was afraid it was going to be based on the trailers. The whole ‘son of a preacher man’ premise made it seem far too clichéd from the outset, while the conversion camp concept appeared to be inviting scorn, if not downright derision. We’d already seen this premise done, much better, in sketch comedies and sitcoms. So we must resist the urge to titter at first, listening to the camp counselors advance their outdated and discredited ideas on behavioral reconditioning. But as the curtain is slowly drawn aside, something insidious is revealed to subsist at the core of this black-souled conversion camp that cheerily claims, on the sunny surface, to love everyone. Instead, their primary intent seems to be shaming susceptible kids with already little sense of self-worth, into being further disgusted by who they are. The Loving in Action institute practices the most twisted form of peace, love and understanding imaginable, using positive and negative reinforcement to exploit the converts’ deep-seated angst, their sense of not being accepted – by their parents, society, God.
Loving in Action preys on their vulnerabilities and weaknesses in order to mold them, so that they can be held up as shining examples of the success of conversion therapy. Only when they respond in the proper way to their conditioning do the kids get rewarded for good behavior. Otherwise the prospect of divine grace, finding favor in God’s eyes, is withheld from them, eternally out of reach, like those car keys Jared’s father gives him for a graduation present. Later Dr. Victor Sykes, the camp’s counselor and resident pastor (director Edgerton, in his thick Caligari glasses and buzz cut, resembles artist renderings of D.B. Cooper) will just come right out and level with the kids, affirming that God won’t love them unless they change their wicked ways and conform to heteronormative paradigms.
The dour clamminess of the situation, often accompanied by ominous spook music, is so gloomy one becomes too unnerved to casually laugh it off, however baroque the approach. As with the equally torturous Novitiate earlier in the year, Boy Erased is so somber and serious and devoid of humor, watching it seems a glorified form of self-flagellation, leaving us wondering who in their right mind would ever prefer to be gay if presented the option, proof positive orientation can’t be a choice. It certainly isn’t made to seem like a very appealing prospect in this picture, which may actually be militating against the movie’s primary purpose of encouraging oppressed young gays to come out of the closet, as Jared does.
Conversion therapy is depicted as harmless at first, as though Jared were admitting himself to outpatient rehab, and the opening, like Unsane earlier in the year, plays on a growing sense of entrapment as he unsuspectingly signs away all his rights, blindly walking into the closing vise like a Venus flytrap. Passing through the iron jaws he’s Daniel in the lion’s den, only learning later that his twelve-day observational period is a transitional stage. Having been enticed with the assurance that he could leave whenever he wanted, once on the inside Jared learns that after his assessment is up, ‘Sykes decides how long we stay for.’ Rather than a day spa, the Loving in Action conversion center becomes a purgatory, and though Jared returns to the motel room he shares with his mom at the end of each day, there’s little indication that the other lost boys at camp get to walk off campus the same way he does. They’re intentionally being held prisoner, fenced in like dogs in a kennel until their conditioning is complete. As with the insurance scam in Unsane, it quickly becomes apparent that this conversion camp that altruistically claims to be in the business of helping people, is just another racket run along America’s free enterprise system, Sykes even outrageously claiming that a year spent here, seeking salvation, would be money better spent than on college. The longer they can be kept at camp, the more money there can be made by bilking complicit parents who find cost no object if it will make their kids ‘normal.’ And the temporary success of the unlicensed conversion techniques means that a high number of relapsed recidivists can be counted on returning on a regular basis, further filling out the coffers like a collection plate. When Sykes rips a dollar bill in half to represent the state of the congregation, severed from the body of Christ in their current fallen state, money is literally used as a signifier for the inmates themselves.
Jared’s erasure is directly linked to the brainwashing practices of other religious cults, which discourage interaction with the outside world, to keep acolytes entirely dependent and their observable behavior controlled. As in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, these boys’ psychological protections are systemically stripped away during their encounter sessions in order to deconstruct their personalities, putting them back together again in their programmers’ own image, allowing Loving in Action to start from scratch with traditional gender encoding. Edgerton depicts this center the way Conley conceived it in his more impressionable youth, little removed from a latter day death camp. Only here gays are ushered off to be eradicated metaphorically, erased from existence like one’s private memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, much the same way they and other minorities have traditionally been erased from history by being denied cinematic representation. Being incarcerated for a crime he committed more in thought than in deed, the process of destroying Jared in order to begin rebuilding from the ground up, begins with him being divested of all living links to the outside world – phone, videogames, TV, movies, reading materials, even journal writings, which for an author must feel like losing a sense of one’s self. Rather than brooking any competition, Sykes wants to keep his campers in a compliant, cattle-like state, docile and utterly dependent on what he has to shovel, rather than permitting them to think outside the box. So contact with the wider world must be severely truncated to prevent radical concepts not promoted by the center itself from creeping into thought and practice, lest the patients begin entertaining ideas contrary to those they’re indoctrinated with. Even the list of approved literature Jared is required to read for his college classes are scoured for suitable content, with longstanding classics like Lolita and The Picture of Dorian Grey being purged as unsuitable, calling to mind other intolerant types of book burning bonfires. It’s works of art like this, Boy Erased included if one kindly stretches the term, that the evangelical right accuses of corrupting the morals of minors.
When not being locked up for public indecency, gays were being imprisoned for sexual insanity, and these religiously run conversion clinics seem artifacts dating back to when being gay was seen as synonymous with mental disorder, justifying commitment and shock therapy. Having had ‘the fairy fried out of them,’ as did Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine, to the point where all that’s left are the pitiful remains of who they once were, these boys lose something vitally human and humane along the way toward conversion, becoming bland, blank-eyed, unquestioningly obedient automatons. They can be heard intoning the party line like Hitler-Jugend, repeating self-affirming mantras that they’re not broken, that God still loves them, as we see them slowly replaced by pod people, socially acceptable shells of their former selves who can be more readily assimilated back into mainstream society. The hair-raising litany of behavioral modification techniques and aversion therapies being applied is intended to turn out a malleable army of Manchurian candidates.
The adverse consequences of a homosexual lifestyle are listed out on the seminary whiteboard, with terms such as rape, sexual abuse, pornography and AIDS used to point an accusatory finger at the inmates, as if it were only a matter of time before they fell prey to them all, given the crooked path they’re currently walking. Accused of using sex to fill a God-shaped void in their lives, their homosexuality is inextricably linked with promiscuity, the patients treated as if they were basket cases lacking impulse control, incapable of even keeping their roaming hands off themselves. We half expect these overly fanatical youth pastors to start swatting the boys with rolled up newspapers, like dogs who won’t stop humping the furniture, or stick them in straitjackets to prevent their wandering hands from drifting south.
And there’s something disturbingly authentic in the film’s portrayal of their distressed parents’ attempts to suppress their growing children’s natural sexual drives and burgeoning desires, forcibly trying to arrest their maturation, motivated like the mother in Carrie by a distaste in seeing their offspring as sexual beings, quite regardless of their personal persuasions. Jared himself even uses his pastor father’s religion as an excuse to stave off dealing with the onus of sex for a few years yet, claiming to be saving himself for marriage like a good boy.
Before he finds out his son’s circuits have been rerouted, Jared’s father is at least shown to have a healthy attitude toward his developing sexual interests, despite his higher calling, encouraging Jared to play safe when dallying with a high school sweetheart. But the specter of premarital sex is looked upon by Loving in Action with a horror unrivaled since Victorian times. Its doctrines build on puritanical Christianity’s view of copulation as the original sin, to be avoided outside the holy bonds of matrimony, and even then for purposes other than procreation.
The slightest suggestion of carnality in those interred within Loving in Action’s walls is rigidly suppressed with a set of Draconian rules and regulations that must be abided by at all times. Discouraged from arousing sexual desires, women are required to wear long skirts and modest bras at all times to dowdy themselves down, and the boys forbidden from doffing their shirts even in the sweltering heat. Yet this dress code seems more stringently applied in some cases than in others. There’s no reason to believe, for instance, that Troye Sivan’s Gary wouldn’t have been sheared the second he stepped on the grounds sporting that platinum cut that practically shouts out his sexual preference with pinwheels and sparklers. Simple human curiosity about one another’s bodies is treated as an urge those interned have to fight, leaving them in a constant state of embattlement. To limit the possibility of temptation, physical contact is reduced to a bare minimum, indulged in only when absolutely necessary, with even lingering handshakes being seen as suspect. The hardcore lifers like Jon (Xavier Dolan) take to this stringent, Spartan regimen with an alarmingly zealous fervor, becoming even more extreme in their behaviors than needs be. Saluting rather than shaking hands, he takes undue pride in the fact that he’s maintained zero human contact for twenty-three days and counting, as if he were an addict who’d hit a clean and sober milestone. No man is an island, but while most people go through life trying to forge meaningful human connections, Jon is imposing upon himself a state of utter physical abstinence, a sexualized form of the vow of silence.
His aversion to flesh on flesh contact leads to some amusingly awkward social situations during the course of events. If he could move through society in a human sized condom, like Leslie Neilson and Priscilla Pressley in The Naked Gun, to keep himself ‘clean,’ he undoubtedly would. The only way Jon seems willing to physically interact with the world around him is through violent means, accepting the punishment he believes is his own due through the unexplained black eyes, cuts and bruises that routinely appear on his face, or dishing out similar flagellation onto others, as he does when he volunteers to participate in the public pillorying of a fellow camper, an inexcusable betrayal. So as Jared innocently observes, upon closer examination even guys like this, who appear to have mastered their natural inclinations, don’t seem to be as emotionally at peace as they publicly claim to be.
To discourage indulgence in the solitary sin, the boys are kept under constant surveillance, completely deprived of privacy in a manner meant to dehumanize. Even restroom visits are closely monitored by staff and timed down to the second. Not trustworthy at this stage, the older counselors are required to stay in proximity as the younger ones do their business, and we don’t know whether to feel more humiliated for one or the other. The camp’s fascistic staff seem to operate with impunity in some Orwellian world in which intimate relations have been outlawed and one’s secret, most private inner thoughts publicly wrested out and laundered for decency. When the stories Jared writes to transport himself outside these walls are scrubbed for mature content for instance, even some ambiguous love verses he’s penned are questioned, capable as they are of being read as alluding to two boys as much as members of the opposite sex. Loving in Action begins to feel less like bible camp than a reform school for wayward boys incarcerated on the basis of their criminalized behavior. It’s a crime against nature Jared stands accused of committing, leading to him being carted off in the dead of night by regulatory sex police, to be locked away for a period of repentance. Following intake, he gets conflicting advice from different inmates concerning how to survive on the inside, and by appropriating such prison tropes the movie begins to feel that much more like a boys behind bars flick, the cardinal difference being that these fresh fish are strictly forbidden from peddling their sex for survival. In what must be a first for the concept of institutionalized conversion, the Loving in Action camp is co-ed, with the boys and girls all mixed in together, which would seem to defeat their strategy of strictly enforcing gender codification, creating a less questioning climate for the sexually confused. Far more comfortable with traditional binary classifications, Sykes mocks the plethora of threatening new choices now offered under the LGBTQ umbrella, believing such laxity to lead directly to increased instances of unacceptable sexual fluidity. Asking whether they’ll want to be described as unicorn next, his apparent obliviousness to the way the animal has already been appropriated by the gay community sounds entirely tone deaf.
Apart from the lack of gender segregation, there seem to be few women counselors to teach the girls how to be more feminine. But the boys are put through the rigors of boot camp by these men of God who behave like an unbearable cross between sadistic gym teachers, drill instructors and chirpy summer camp counselors. Like basic training, the general intention is to make tough men of them, whittling away their individuality until they’ve become the kind of unimaginative Christian soldiers who obey reflexively, doing whatever they’re told without question. Loving in Action uses fear tactics to scare these kids straight, trying to beat and intimidate the gay out of them, believing it to be for their own good.
And as that incident where the littlest boy Lee (Emily Hinkler) gets removed from the program after being battered black and blue in a baseball batting cage shows, their techniques are not too far removed from gay bashing itself, just a modified form of legally licensed child abuse. Under the judgmental eyes of their keepers, the humiliated boys are subjectively arranged in a line from most to least masculine, as though being gay were synonymous with being fey, and one’s orientation determined by a combination of unconscious behaviors and a mastery of sports, rather than biochemical attraction. And if, as the counselors state, a real man is one who does good in God’s eyes, one wouldn’t think it should matter much how butchly they swaggered about.
Yet these awkward and insecure teens are made even more self-conscious about their growing bodies when it’s pointed out how they’re crossing their legs in an effeminate fashion, how limp-wristed their handshake is, or asked to seriously consider what impression they’re making in public by the way they stand and hold themselves, as if being told that they throw like girls was going to help improve their self-esteem. Encouraged to attempt a more manly posture by forming the shape of an inverted triangle from shoulder to torso, they just appear stiff and unnatural. Not to mention ass backward, since the ‘V’ shape in art and design has traditionally been used to represent the vagina. Before the camp can erase the bad job done on the boys heretofore, first principles must be established concerning what makes men truly manly. And raising the question opens a Pandora’s box of debates the movie never addresses, concerning toxic masculinity and what types of male pattern behaviors should continue to be encouraged by contemporary society.
The boys are advised to fake it ‘til they make it, adapt to survive by pretending they’re the ‘real men’ they aren’t yet, as though acting straight could make one straight. Which seems singularly unhelpful advice considering these closeted kids must be past masters at such artifice, having been faking it their entire lives. There seems no reprieve in God’s eyes as to when they’ll be given leave to just relax and be themselves. In a reprise later, Gary will give similar actorly advice to Jared, imparting the phrase ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ with a whole new meaning by placing it in a different context. Advised to fake being straight just long enough to earn his release papers, then make up his own mind on the outside whether he wants to live openly or not, Jared had never even considered the possibility that choosing to accept his sexuality were an option. He comes to understand that everyone must choose their own path in life, as his family doctor (Cherry Jones) had subtly suggested earlier, and as had been suggested on his way to the camp at the outset, as Edgerton’s camera had lingered with intent on that life changing fork in the road. In the process, Jared attains something approaching self-acceptance by asserting his right to be himself, rather than living a lie, to appease others.
Of course gay-themed movies like Boy Erased invariably give audiences the erroneous impression that everyone on screen may be sexually suspect, forcing us to scour the cast to try sorting out who may or may not be. Like the paranoid counselors, we can’t help reading far more into every longing glance and innocent attention than is really there. Such as when fellow camper Jon tells Jared to stop staring at him all the time, giving him the heebie-jeebies by fixing him with a come-hither look that’s wholly imagined on his part. All the same, in this frame of mind every guy seems a potential come on, such as Henry (Joe Alwyn – his feline features may remind viewers of Brain Krause), that athletic blond who jogs with Jared around his Christian college campus, and who observes what “a good fit” the two are together.
Likewise catching him ogling his slick, sweat-soaked body when they come to a stopping place, rather than being embarrassed, the prying camera takes on Jared’s own longing perspective, continuing to linger over supple flesh as the boys lay prone in bunk beds later. Engaging in what comes across as extended courtship, attending tent revivals to restoreth their souls while watching their bodies strengthen and develop during the course of their daily runs, a routine they adhere to religiously, when Jared instead ends up getting himself raped by this wolf in sheep’s clothing it seems something of a start, with Henry lustfully leaping down on him from the top bunk like a werewolf under a harvest moon. It’s an experience traumatic enough to scare anyone off sex, in effect performing pretty much the same function as the conversion clinic subsequently will. And to add insult to injury, a contrite Henry subsequently experiences an immediate need to confess his sins to the guy he’d just forced himself on. While Jared feels compelled to hear him out and absolve him, like a Catholic priest delivering last rites, despite the personal turmoil he’d just been out through. Understandably confused and all out of sorts following this encounter, Jared’s left swimming against the tide as he moves down the hall in the opposite direction as everyone else. Having been turned around, he’s a nervous wreck who keeps a sharp eye out lest he accidentally run back into the predator who expectantly waits for him to appear for running practice as if nothing had ever happened. So before he ever enters rehab Jared already appears to be just half a person, part of him, the person he thought he was, having been peremptorily erased. Which explains the director’s repeated use of imagery that divides his face through lighting or architecture, to express his inner conflicts. And it’s a sword that cuts both ways. The effort of Henry, for instance, to remain chaste and holy by repressing his sexual drive, simply results in it percolating dangerously just below conscious level, before unexpectedly erupting in instances of sexual violence. Forcing himself on Jared is not even the first time he’s succumbed to his urges, alluding to “something bad (that) happened between…” him and another kid he’d nodded greetings to at the revival.
After Jared’s first, furtive experience with another man, concealing shadow draping the shamefaced fornicators in moral darkness, it takes another, platonic encounter with a fawn-like foreign art student Xavier (Théodore Pellerin), to provide some sexual healing, convince Jared that sex needn’t be a scarring experience. Rather than having the beast with two backs forced upon him against his will, Jared is more gently seduced into the ways of love, where nothing physical even need happen until he’s ready, allowing him to experience sex as spiritual communion for the first time. With Jared’s experiences limited to those extremes represented by Henry, with whom he attends revivals, on one hand and Xavier, whose paintings concern God vs. science, on the other, a subtle war is being waged between those social forces represented by each – religion and the arts.
In this context, Henry’s conservative religion is placed in oppositional relation to Xavier’s liberal arts, via the former’s demonstrable desire to suppress, rather than nurture, sexual self-expression. It’s the same way that doctor Jared’s parents send him to see, hoping to have his testosterone levels checked, is placed as counterpoint to religious signs and wonders, holding as she does “science in one hand and God in the other.” Where religion tries to convince the boy there’s something wrong with him, science tells him just what he needs to hear. In a movingly played scene where his doctor is careful not to overstep her bounds or speak where it’s not her place, she reassures him that he’s a perfectly normal, very healthy teenage boy with everything in good working order, and that his choices should be his own.
When the object of his affection asks the studiously minded Jared if he believes in the devil, countering his fears with “did he look like me?,” we can’t help feeling he just might, knowing the great tempter appears in the most enticing forms imaginable, rather than with horns and hooves. As Jared was warned by Loving in Action, the devil is going to tempt him over and over again by throwing such sylphs in his path. But in truth the question itself serves to remind us how organized religion has stepped up its targeted efforts to demonize homosexuals since the gay community has become more visible and vocal following the social upheavals of the counter culture era, using the bible as a witch’s hammer.
I haven’t caught the Chlöe Grace Moretz indie The Miseducation of Cameron Post yet, so can’t comment on whether that adopted a more hardline approach to its similar subject matter, but it would’ve been challenging to see a more subversive movie tackle the topic of religious persecution head-on. For its part, Boy Erased tepidly addresses it only tangentially, never questioning the bedrock biblical thinking which so riles people up, convinces them they can erase homosexuality from existence to suit their own divinely inspired agenda concerning how things ought to be – the sort of fundamentalist thinking that resulted in conversion camps in the first place. Instead, and rather off-handedly, Boy Erased delves more deeply into the question of nurture vs. nature and, contrary to what Gaga taught us, Sykes assures his captive audience that one cannot be born this way, blaming both them for choosing to be gay, as well as their parents for proving incapable of dissuading them from such a detrimental lifestyle.
And yet there’s something askew here. Seemingly flying in the face of their own beliefs, Loving in Action tasks the patients with tracing their family tree, digging down to the genetic roots of their condition as though it were the only possible end result of successive generations of weak natures and congenital degeneration, the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. Taking a counterintuitive approach to divine doctrine, rather than viewing homosexuality as a taught or learned behavior they try to pinpoint the root cause of their condition within the ancestral lines. As if pinning a tail on the donkey, they flush out any fallen forebears possessing personal ‘moral failings,’ with abortion, gang affiliations and drug addiction sharing pride of place alongside predispositions toward domestic violence and alcoholism. While we’re left scratching our heads, such blame games tend to take us right back to Jared’s own pastor father’s earlier sermon, which reworded Jesus’ accusation about letting ‘him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.’
Jared’s defensive mother takes umbrage at why a genogram chart is required of them as well, on the assumption that “our family is so normal,” with the film making no self-effacing acknowledgment of how relative the notion of ‘normalcy’ actually is, especially in this context. And Boy Erased seems just as blissfully unaware of the nonsensical nature of Loving in Action’s own argument. If the church’s official line is that gays are made by bad parenting and societal disintegration, and not created the way God intended, I don’t understand what it profits Sykes and his keepers to have the boys try to prove there’s a genetic basis for their condition, as Jared’s mother does when she reveals he had a distant uncle who was suspected of swinging that way.
One would think that by corroborating that it runs in the family, confirming its biologic basis, they would be going a ways toward proving that sexual preference were an inheritable trait like any other, eye color or height for instance, and hence part of nature’s grand design. And if one continues along that line of thought, by meddling with people’s private preferences, twisting them to their own ends by forcing one’s sexual conversion, one would think the clinic would be trespassing into God’s domain, meddling in things man was meant to leave alone. Too, the conversion center’s condoning of sexualized harassment is enough to give those converts who have suffered actual sexual assault, like Jared and Sarah (Jesse LaTourette), the idea that it was somehow their fault, that they were asking for what they got by the way they unconsciously behaved, inviting unwanted attention. It’s an institutionalized form of victim blaming. Jared is convinced by Loving in Action that the entire time he was crushing on upperclassman Henry, he was committing the sin of sodomy in his heart, making him feel like he deserved to be punished. Loving in Action begins exerting a detrimental effect on Jared’s character. He appears to be getting much worse and more conflicted rather than better, though like Jon he reassures everyone who asks that he’s just fine, despite the perceptible shakes.
Becoming withdrawn and uncommunicative, he begins hiding things from his mother and not wanting to share or talk about his days. To the extent that she must perform an intervention, raiding his room and reading his crumpled and discarded lists of moral inventory just to try and figure out what’s going on with him. Like Jon, Jared begins flinching from being touched and disrespectfully snaps at his mom in a manner he never would have before, when she asks him not to flirt with fate by hanging his arm out the car window while she’s driving. That inherent sense of self-hatred Sykes is so adept at stoking in his acolytes results in the sweet and uncertain Jared we see in flashbacks being further and further erased. With the light having gone out of his eyes, he even begins acting out aggressively, in a way one presumes the camp would believe more manly – defacing public property by throwing stones at a sexually suggestive curbside ad featuring an enticing cologne model.
A rare and ironic instance of male sexual objectification, in a culture far more inclined to depict women in this way, one would almost be led to believe marketing advances in equal opportunity flesh peddling were guilty of establishing a more morally permissible ambiance, paving the way for the modern pandemic of same-sex attraction. Even when trying to keep his thoughts clean, such pseudo-softcore imagery just seems to seek Jared out. And his new, more fanatically puritanical self is performing this symbolic biblical stoning as a simple means of displacement, trying to erase the unacceptable urges such sights arouse within him, believing by removing the temptation, his attendant feelings will likewise go away. He might as well be smashing his own cracked mirror, and he’s not alone in this form of psychological bait and switch.
Well-meaning, God-fearing parents send their kids away to this conversion camp without realizing it’s a situation of the blind leading the blind. Loving in Action’s mentally, emotionally and physically abusive methods permit the onsite staff to engage in their own form of psychological displacement, refocusing their self-hatred onto the kids in their charge. Beating the hell out of these Sunday schoolers who represent what they can’t abide in themselves is their way of exorcising their own suppressed desires. As the inner demons of the camp counselors emerge, oblique angles and forced perspectives have them loom menacingly up over their defenseless victims, like babadooks, which may weaken the point. Turning them into boogeymen is much less disturbing than recognizing that such things can be carried out by perfectly well-intentioned professionals who believe they have the best interests of their patients at heart. Brandon (Flea, of the Red hot Chili Peppers), the guest speaker who drills the boys in the ways of machismo, says he hasn’t struggled with the same feelings they have, but as a recovering addict and ex-felon can understand the demons driving them. And yet despite his claims, his acquaintance with homosexuality isn’t as alien a concept as he likes to make out, remarking “when you’re in prison you’d surprise yourself what you can do to fit in.” When Brandon corners Jared in the bathroom stall near the end, under the pretext that he’s supposed to be monitored at all times, and begins making sexually suggestive remarks, he becomes a prison warden back in the pokey, and we fear the situation is about to take a dark, drop the soap turn. With Jared having been driven into the camp by an instance of sexual abuse in his past, the cure proves worse than the complaint. He should’ve been sent into intensive psychotherapy to process the trauma, rather than this halfway house where he continues to be harassed and forced to relive his rape all over again. As patient after patient is removed from the facility, it becomes clear that the real problem is occurring behind closed doors, inmates abjured once released not to discuss what goes on inside, same as victims are silenced by their abusers.
Referring to Lucas Hedges, the lulling decibels of Troye Sivan’s Golden Globe-nominated theme song states “you’re a revelation, a revolution,” and his performance does prove quite a contrast to his equally impressive, roid raging, abusive older brother in Jonah Hill’s Mid90s earlier in the fall. Full disclosure – I was unimpressed with Hedges in his Oscar-nominated breakout role in Manchester by the Sea a few years back. I found his abrasive character off-putting, despite the personal grief he was going through, and Hedges something less than endearing in the part. Yet he’s proven nothing short of exceptional in virtually everything I’ve seen him in since – Lady Bird; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Mid90s; Ben is Back; and again here in his first out and out leading man role. Working up to this showcase over time, as he mastered his craft, and now afforded the opportunity to fully shine, he doesn’t disappoint. With his big round head, delicate, downy pallor, elusive lisp and quivering lower lip that makes him constantly appear on the verge of tears, this is the softest and most sensitive he’s been since he went gay for Lady Bird last year. It’s not just that all the boys in the film are more sexually aggressive than he is himself, but the girls too, like that high school sweetheart Chloe (Madelyn Cline) who has no intention of waiting until marriage, and can’t understand why he shows no interest in getting in her pants. He seems like perfect prey for any sexual predator, incapable as he is of fending off either gender. So he’s eager initially to go along with his parents’ scheme to ship him off for conversion, if it means it will make him more manly and aggressive, a taker rather than being took. Hedges is such a tense, concentrated actor, as evidenced in the way he locks his jaws, like Rami Malek, and casts his eyes down or to the side rather than look people in the face, for fear they’ll be able to ferret out his true feelings. He can seem so earnestly and deeply disappointed in himself, when admitting to his parents what he fears might be true, or hemmed in and tortured, such as when he fears Henry won’t accept his seemingly innocuous invitation to crash for the night, his pain practically palpable. And when Jared rehearses the speech he’s preparing for his testimonial, in which he must come clean by admitting to his every sexual sin before the entire congregation, we feel like we’re being afforded a rare insight into what it must be like for the actor to run his lines.
What’s odd is that his time at the camp does appear to have made a man of Jared as intended, serving as a rite of passage in a backhanded way, at least insofar as he’s now able to self-assertively stand up for himself against his oppressors. And we’re rather surprised to see him with his dander up suddenly so defiant, since there’d been little suggestion heretofore that the kid had any fight in him. While not precisely a rebel, despite that being his basketball team’s name, Jared will still prove the one subject immune to Loving in Action’s conditioning, protesting that he’s not Pavlov’s dog when ordered to sit, and hence won’t be as conducive as his fellow campers to obedience taming. Off his leash he wanders through the halls freely, ambushing the attendant for his confiscated contraband and scuffling with the pursuing staff, before secreting himself away for safety in a bathroom stall where they can’t get at him, we can sense his rising panic every inch of the way as he builds up this head of steam.
Flitting like a caged tiger through the dim byways somberly illuminated by only the natural luster of self-enlightenment, Jared’s eyes fall on fleeting shades of cowed converts hidden away in the cells he passes. Huddling together for comfort in their gleaming white button ups, the boys are called upon to stand witness to an arcane form of ritual purification, revived by the church only in the most extreme of situations, and their frozen tableaux suggest the Stations of the Cross. But while Jared is shown to be more sinned against than sinning, he still doesn’t prove the movie’s primary, pilloried, Christ figure. That honor goes to the Cameron character (Britton Sear), whose ample size makes him an easy target for teasing in group sessions, as Vincent D’Onofrio’s did in Full Metal Jacket (Flea might be doing R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor bit from the same film). Standing silent witness at this inquisition, Jared watches him martyred to the cause, as Cameron literally has the hell beat out of him, with bibles instead of a batting cage, volunteers being called out of the audience to participate in the public shaming.
Claiming to have the remedy for what’s ailing these inmates, Syke’s disciples practice the laying on of hands to cure the boys’ affliction, like faith healers attempting to pray the gay away. But the hostile hands they lay on Jared at the end are meant to prevent him from absconding, giving the clinic another black eye through his personal defection. It’s clear that things have reached a breaking point when even Jon, who’s sworn off human contact, instinctively breaks his fast by grabbing Jared’s arm to prevent him from going, desperately clawing at his last hope of salvation. Though Jared tells his captors not to touch him and threatens to report them when they continue to, confident in the fact that they have enough witnesses on their side, they sincerely believe they’re simply restraining him as a danger to himself and others. There’s an intentional, latent threat in such manhandling though, as they practically pinion him in place, refusing to let him up even when his increasingly distressed mother arrives to spring him. For a second there, we think they really mean to keep him interred in this ossuary against his parents’ express wishes, on the pretext that they’re unfit, having turned him out gay to begin with. It’s Cameron who ends up sacrificing himself so that Jared might live, throwing his football player’s bulk around the way John Lithgow’s transgender Roberta did in The World According the Garp, in the interest of freeing him as he wishes he could free himself, returning the favor in kind for Jared having been the only one to show him any empathy. Having earlier been accused of believing his heft made him manlier, it certainly comes in handy when breaking through the defensive lines. It’s just a shame that even this film, which wants to establish an alternative definition for virility, ends up cheering these boys on for resorting to typical masculine brutality, might making right, rather than exploring less violent means of resolving their problems. The end, as he escapes from the compound, plays as though Jared were fleeing Heaven’s Gate. And indeed he apparently busted out just in time, in light of what was to become of Cameron following his liberation, leading us to think, with their identical combovers and similar facial features, that there but for the grace of God… You can’t top a prison break, and I would have been perfectly pleased had Boy Erased chosen to wrap on this emotionally euphoric high. But unfortunately the movie gets caught up in its own sense of self-importance and refuses to end, instead lasting long after the term of its natural life, like an inmate interred in the camp long term. But for all the time spent there, Jared’s fellow campers never come into any clear focus, despite spotlight turns accorded Jon, Gary, Cameron and Sarah. Nor do any of the counselors, besides Brandon and David Joseph Craig’s Michael, with his amusingly lapdog like devotion to Sykes. While tender and touching at times, Boy Erased seems more than a tad overscaled considering the limited scope of what actually transpires here, with slo-mo underlining the dramatic importance of certain moments, the camera coming to an impressive crawl for added emphasis. Boy Erased’s Oscar push hurt it a great deal, forcing it to overemphasize its social relevance, which is a sure killjoy for any film going experience. When ads started popping up talking about a movie with the power to change lives, one was given pause.
Things began to sound like an educational outing rather than a movie in the traditional entertainment sense. We were being taken to church, the intention to give us a schooling, forcing audiences to endure a reeducation of their own. With its saturation ad campaign, which seemed near the end to be selling the movie on the strength of Nicole Kidman’s performance, which had generated Oscar buzz, and downplaying the gay angle, Boy Erased was not apologetic about wanting to remain in the conversation during the awards season by any means necessary; which is undoubtedly why its release date was pushed back from September, where good Oscar bait goes to die, all the way to November. And now that the dust has settled, one can view the movie a bit more evenhandedly.
Commentators were quick to compare Kidman’s role in Boy Erased to her transcendent work in Lion, and the redundancy is likely what cheated her out of an expected supporting actress nomination. Her performance was clearly conceived and shaped along similar lines, in a manner fully intended to invoke our fond memories of her moving work in the earlier film. The filmmakers undoubtedly wanted the actress to bring that self-same luminous quality to bear in Boy Erased, with the movie even ending on a similar series of snapshots of the estranged family’s reunion. But where Kidman’s moving turn in Lion felt spiritually incandescent, this reprise seems more of a broad caricature by comparison, one which, ironically enough given the content, feels lacking the same spiritual depth. Which isn’t to say Kidman’s not just as good here in her way. Part Dolly Parton and part Tammy Faye Baker, the actress, who worked closely with her character’s real life inspiration, skewers all notions of honey-dewed southern belles, and with her leopard prints and jangly gold bangles appears to be having a lark sketching in this role. The only real drawback is that she seems to come across as too prim and proper at times. And her natural auburn tresses, concealed for some reason under that questionable blond wig she wears, would have matched up far better with Hedges as her son, just as Julia Roberts’ redolent red mane did in Ben is Back. Jeopardizing his position in the church, his pastor father could no longer chance being associated with his son until he got his head screwed on straight. So it’s left to Jared’s mom to escort him to gay camp, which surely can’t help but make him feel like bread cast upon the waters. But then again, wasn’t it always believed to be an abnormal attachment to the mother, in the absence of a father in the picture, which made boys gay to begin with? It’s just what apoplectic evangelicals always warned feminism, with its assault on traditional family values and encouragement of gender role reversals would lead to – a lost generation of gay boys raised in broken homes. But no matter. As the Kidman character states “… a mother knows when something isn’t right,” the backward misspelling of God’s name in the camp handbook warning the proofreader in her that this miracle cure may not be quite divinely inspired. Though what her response may have been had there been no spellcheck errors is a moot point. “They say sometimes you gotta hurt a child in order to help them,” but it slowly dawns on her that despite its name, there’s no loving action evident behind the abuse being dished out at camp. Its ideologies are anathema to true Christian virtues. Beginning with her rousing reappearance at the clinic to rescue her son, Kidman’s characterization, with its pleasing echoes of Lion, leads up to another fine, ‘for your consideration’ soliloquy that lets her, if not quite roar, meow and spit in an appealing manner, as she bemoans her well-bred training as a southern lady taught to do what she’s told and defer to male council, that has deprived her of a say in what’s best for her own son. Rather than asserting her motherly prerogative, “Those men decided what to do with you and I fell into line like I usually do… I knew in my bones this wasn’t hurting to help. I was just letting you down and I kept my mouth shut. And I will always regret that.” Not intending to repeat the same mistake again, she avers “I can do a different thing now. Now that I have a chance,” discovering her own self-assertive strength by shepherding her little lost lamb through his great tribulation. Despite all the prayers Jared offers up for deliverance, she proves his real savior here. And like her son, she no longer intends to hide behind the façade imposed upon her by societal expectations. Having tried to intercede in a more passive fashion on her son’s behalf before, she demands equal footing in her marriage for the first time, telling the fitful Jared “I’ll handle your father. He can fall into line with me for a change.” Yet when the marriage becomes strained over their divergent approaches to parenting, with the two spending more and more time apart, Jared, unlike most guilt-ridden children of divorce, can be pretty sure that it was indeed he, despite his mum’s reassurances to the contrary, who drove the unwitting wedge between them. One of the movie’s central metaphors involves Jared dangling his arm out the car window as his mother drives along, and her fretting about a truck coming along to excise it. The analogy is used to embody the attendant dangers she now fears posed to her openly gay son, who has placed himself out on a limb, vulnerable and exposed, practically inviting harm by precipitously letting it all hang out. But unfortunately, the metaphor gets all gummed up in our recent movie going memories with the emotionally scarring decapitation in Hereditary, seeming to undermine the son’s point and justify his mother’s. But a movie can’t be held accountable for such an unfortunate accident of timing. If Boy Erased had come out a year ago, or a year from now, this metaphor would’ve worked beautifully.
The objective of Boy Erased is to startle and discomfit audiences, the way Imitation Game did with its intimations of chemical castration near the end. Here it’s the uneasy knowledge that medieval conversion camps like this are still alive and well, and receiving parochial backing, even in our more enlightened times. Though it fails to satisfy our muted horror by thoroughly distilling the different therapies imposed on the boys in order to erase them, the sort of sick psychological conditioning that still passes as acceptable medical practice, Boy Erased, complete with its own activist website www.stoperasing.com and data feed that “36 states still legally allow conversion therapy to be practiced on minors,” wants to be a testimonial, the way Philomena was.
Guilting the bigoted Bible Belt into behaving, the movie seeks to expose the backward thinking that has managed to subsist in the small, rural pockets of the American South, which here appear to have remained largely untouched by the changing times. A social Brigadoon, it would be nearly impossible to determine from the film itself precisely when this movie, based on the memoir by thirty-three year old Gerrard Conley (he was born in 1985) is supposed to be set. With the references to iPhones and Xboxes, logic tells us this is present day, but the mother’s beehive and white fringed blue jean jacket and father’s used car dealership could spot it as far back as the late ‘70s to early ‘80s.
Or maybe it’s just to convey to audiences that southern fried thinking hasn’t advanced at the same pace as other social changes over the last forty odd years. Then again, the editing by Jay Rabinowitz is so lax we’re never quite sure when the director has leapt backward or forward in time. I’m still not certain whether that art gallery opening, which we initially assume Jared is attending in real time, apparently having been given a day pass from the facility, actually occurred, if it were when he was still at college, and if so where this serene encounter would have been sandwiched in time, between the more traumatizing one. It’s precisely movies like Boy Erased, which depict the South as some backward boondock, that induces large swathes of the rural populace to turn a deaf ear to the opinions of the ‘Hollywood elite,’ even when there’s much substance to be found in what they have to say. As Jared’s mother well knows, you catch more flies with sugar. It’s common knowledge that if you interject race, religion or region into conversation in Southern politics, you can manipulate people into acting against their own best interests. “Seduced into a sinful life by all sorts of sinful people,” when Jared moves to Manhattan to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer at the end, it represents the primal fear of every died in the wool Bible Belt Baptist, the unspoken conviction that this is what the gay lifestyle is leading their boys into becoming – elite East coast liberals.
Director Joel Edgerton proved what a skilled craftsman he could be, especially in manipulating audience emotions, with his debut in The Gift. And Boy Erased gives every indication that it could have been an equally unpretentious, modest little hair-raiser. After all, The Gift also spun on a gay rumor that ruined a boy’s life in high school, and though the accusation here proves true, it hardly seems to matter, nearly succeeding in destroying Jared all the same. As in The Children’s Hour, the mere whisper is enough to place things beyond the pale. Though they don’t really want to get at the truth, fearing what they’ll find out, Jared’s parents still surreptitiously prod him to confess his sins, giving him the third degree with “We’ve got one question for you son, then we’re gonna let you sleep.” When his father tries to implant subliminal thoughts in his head with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, telling him that “we’ve only got one God-given right, and that is when a man and a woman come together. They may create life,” Jared is forced to balk at the persistent insinuation, lashing out with “God, it’s really not true,” despite knowing full well it is. Forgetting about ‘doing unto others,’ Henry was so scared of being exposed by Jared that he took the initiative, up and outing him to his parents under the pretext of being a school counselor, so his victim wouldn’t be believed if he hollered rape after the fact. And having forced the situation, Jared will proceed to do just what Henry feared when his father convinces him to report the incident to the proper authorities, bringing events to a head in a way they needn’t have if he’d just let sleeping dogs lie. But while Jared cavalierly outs Henry’s other victim, who probably never wanted to make his own assault public, he’s circumspect to say nothing of his own rape, keeping it a closely guarded, shameful secret. Being forced out of the closet before your time and against your will, outed publicly before one has even been able to sort out their own sexual orientation, is akin to birth trauma here, much as it was in Love, Simon last spring. It’s almost like being reborn a brand new person, redefining oneself from the ground up by erasing all evidence of who everyone thought you were heretofore. With people he’s known and trusted all his life behaving as if they expected him to sprout horns, morphing into something monstrous, an alien creature out of Kafka, Jared sometimes wishes he had a magic pill to put it all back in the bottle, that ‘none of this would’ve ever happened,’ and at others wants to ‘thank God it did,’ releasing the secret he’s been hiding so long. With everything out now the weight is off his shoulders, but it instantly raises a whole new slew of unforeseen problems. Once Jared returns home to his evangelical enclave after his period away though, we aren’t made privy to how his community adjusts to him back in their midst; there doesn’t appear to be any fallout at all from what surely must by this point be public knowledge. We don’t even find how the issue may have impacted his father’s standing in the church. Boy Erased is the first film in which Russell Crowe has teamed with fellow Aussies Edgerton and Kidman, and it’s fun listening to them all affect their best Arkansas accents. As Jared’s father, he’s unable to hold his head up with pride in his community after finding himself cursed with a black sheep for a son, threatening everything he’s spent his life trying to build as a devout pillar of society. There seems no way that he, as a pastor, can face his flock when the sermons he preaches every Sunday have fallen on deaf ears even in the bosom of his own home. He threatens to deprive Jared of a livelihood in the world if he doesn’t see fit to change his ways, as melodramatic parents threatened to disown their kids for defying them in old movies. He no longer sees how Jared can live under his roof, attend his church services, work at his car dealership if he’s going to fundamentally go against his beliefs “and against God himself.” He’s no longer seen fit to carry on the family name.
For his part Jared, shamed for feeling the way he does, profusely apologizes to his parents for having unclean thoughts, for disappointing them, as though it were something he could help. But it’s not enough for the boy to feel guilty just for disappointing his folks. He’s made to feel as if he were a disappointment to God himself. The son of this dedicated pastor, who looks down on him from his pulpit, the way his heavenly father must look down on him from his throne on high, Jared is endowed before the congregation with such undeserved qualities as “fine, upstanding, honest,” none of which, as he well knows, he can live up to, causing his guilt to assume downright biblical proportions as all the marshaled forces of moral order seem to be closing in on him. His father will subsequently denounce him near the end, practically damn him to hellfire by using indirect language that nevertheless makes it clear who he’s referring to when he says just turning up at church can’t make parishioners Christians, if they continue to sin in their heart. The film’s central drama places Jared in direct conflict with his domineering father who tries to crush, change and make him over in his own image. Sending him to gay camp, he wants Jared baptized and reborn as the perfect Stepford son, abnegating his parental claim until he’s become the sort of person he can be proud of. Interestingly, Jared’s father disappears from the film entirely whenever pastor Sykes is in the vicinity, which is a goodly portion of the film, suggesting Sykes is meant to have taken up his reins, become Jared’s father figure replacement, and as such, the force that must be faced down and vanquished in order for Jared to become his own person, making it possible for him to reconcile with his old man. Attempting to rectify the poor job done in his child rearing, Sykes applies his behavioral reconditioning in order to make the man out of Jared he believes his father failed to. Wanting to occupy a similar place in the young man’s heart, Sykes attempts to coerce Jared into admitting to hating his real father by harking back to the way he was treated and shamed, after his secret sins were publicized. Having probed his psyche, Sykes turns the boy’s festering resentments against him, pushing Jared over the edge by revealing how his father further betrayed him by telling the counselors about Henry.
Assuring his captive audience that parents can only protect them by lying to them, he coerces his charges, like an old-school Freudian, into believing that it was their parents who messed them up in the first place, then tossed them out like garbage into his care. Slowly assuming the parental mantle as authority figure, like a fringe cult leader who wants to be everything to his flock, we wouldn’t be surprised if they started calling him ‘father’ instead of ‘pastor.’ Encouraging his primal scream in this fashion, Sykes is determined to turn Jared against his own people, overcome his vehement denials that he doesn’t hate his father but is instead incensed by Sykes’ attempts to displace him. What’s irrefutable is that this facility professing such devotion to the good book, instead seems to be taking every opportunity to flout the fundamental commandment about honoring thy father and mother.
The converts are required to publicly share their most intimate personal stories of same sex attraction not just in front of the entire congregation, but in front of a recording camera for posterity. The rationale for this public pillorying isn’t clear, unless additional shaming were considered part of the healing process, like those confessionals in Novitiate where the sisters laid their souls bare for picking over. Sara is forced to graphically relate her first experience with another woman in front of a room full of horny teenage boys, as if she were being used to titillate their latent heterosexuality, teasing it out with the explicit talk. Offering himself up after what he witnessed with Cameron, as the next sacrifice on the altar of sexual persecution, Jared’s final testimonial becomes a push you, pull me confrontation with the satanic Sykes who challenges him, trying to dig into him, to see what he’s made of.
His efforts are met with Jared’s own artful thrusts and parries until he’s run off, returning home rather than confronting the uncomfortable truths about himself and his true feelings. To Jared, saying that he hated his father would have been akin to Job, with whom he compares his situation, succumbing to Satan’s enticement to curse God and die, freeing him from his torment. But the movie’s great irony is that despite breaking with Loving in Action over this refusal to bear false witness against his father, Jared can never be quite certain in his heart of hearts that his father doesn’t hate him, having, after all, shipped him off to such a place to begin with. Wanting to see no evil, hear no evil, much less be made to feel guilty for having treated his son as a red-headed stepchild, his father adopts an implacable stoicism Jared perceives as unrepentant lack of concern, never asking what they did to him on the inside, not wanting to know what he’d inadvertently put his son through by damning him to a hell here on earth.
The movie’s barometer for whether the audience needle has been moved or not, rests on the degree to which the father has been changed by his son’s experiences. Like his wife he admits to seeking the council of wiser men, and to following their advice as he’s often done rather than that of his own heart. But as Jared asks him, with no response forthcoming, “what would you do now? Now that you’re running things (at the church)?” So, despite all his protestations to the contrary, Jared does indeed prove to be harboring if not hatred, at least some deep-seated anger and resentment toward his father for putting him through the wringer by virtually abandoning him to the system. Like judgment on him, through his own sins of arrogance and pride, Jared’s father admits he may have set himself up to lose his only begotten son. Having weathered what he went through at Loving in Action and emerged a stronger person, Jared’s proven his sexuality is fixed and can’t be altered, since “God knows I’ve tried.” And with there being no changing him, it’s the father who will have to bend a little, meet him half way by accepting his orientation, if he doesn’t want to lose him entirely.
Unable to talk to his parents about what he’d endured at camp, any more than he could cotton to being sexually assaulted in college, Jared eventually had to find a way to let it all out, tell somebody by getting it down on paper, sharing his own good word with the world, as his pastor father does each Sunday. Boy Erased seeks to empower artists like Jared who, having made his choice between writing and religion as though they were mutually exclusive terms, became an author penning the magazine expose If God Only Knew: The Ethics and Morals of Conversion Therapy, about his camp experiences. And through these various avenues of thought, art is shown to have the power to effect positive change, as Boy Erased is itself seeking to do. So when his psalm singing father presents Jared with the gift of a pen whittled from a cedar tree in the Holy Land, ‘one writer to another,’ he’s bestowing his personal blessing upon his son’s career, sanctifying it in a sense, acknowledging that his writing in its way has the power to wield the same strength as sermon.