Watching Boy Erased in Australia is a curious affair. It’s written and directed by one of the great modern Aussie minds – Joel Edgerton (working with the production company he started with his brother, Nash, and many others, Blue Tongue Films). It stars two of Australia’s most iconic actors – Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. And yet, this is a film that’s about the madness that thrives in America.
Focusing on the real life story of Garrad Conley, Boy Erased takes a look at the life of the son of Baptist parents (Kidman and Crowe), and how he is forced into participating in gay conversion therapy as being gay goes against their religion. The son, named Jared Eamons in this adaptation, is played superbly by Lucas Hedges. His father, Marshall, is a car dealer and a Baptist preacher, and is portrayed by Russell Crowe as a behemoth of a man, his body towers over the lectern he reads the Word of God from. Nicole Kidman’s mother, Nancy, is all hair spray and lipstick, living her life in due diligence to Marshall, merely towing the line as she escorts Jared off to the conversion therapy camp.
Said camp is run by a terrifying Victor Sykes, Joel Edgerton bringing the same crew cut hair that he sported in his equally unsettling directorial debut The Gift. Jared finds himself amongst a group of men and women of varying ages, all of whom are there to – essentially – have the gay beaten out of them (both literally and figuratively). Victor demands the subjects pore over their family trees, looking for all signs of guilt and treason against the Bible that may be a reason for their sexuality. Some, like Xavier Dolan’s Jon, appear to have shirked their sexuality and work alongside the program to be ‘normal’, while others like Troye Sivan’s Gary have found that simply giving the allusion that they have changed, and working with the program, will get them out of this program safely.
All of this is explored through the eyes of a foreigner – both Joel Edgerton as a writer and director, and also the character of Jared Eamons who is discovering his sexuality while he’s also being pushed through a trial of fire by his family who believe they’re doing the right thing. For Jared, his eyes are opened to the fragility of love and comfort, and how prejudice creeps into life in the most disturbing, insidious ways. When he is forced to explore his families history, and in turn, try and dig up dirt about the people he loves, he does reluctantly, as it goes against everything he has learned from his religion. The same religion that has fostered and created a toxic, noxious entity that is the gay conversion therapy camp.
Joel Edgerton, a foreigner to America and to the LGBTIQ+ community, peers into this world with curiosity, and an impressive amount of respect. Now, granted, there is no respect given for the actions that his character, but there is a fair amount of respect and understanding for the Eamons family and the other folks who are pushed into living through this horrific mind torture treatment. While there are very few acts of violence – outside of a horrendous family beating laid upon a gay son, with his father, siblings, and others wailing on him with bibles in hand -, the trauma that is inflicted is purely psychological. The monopolisation of ones commitment to their faith to inflict guilt and fear onto them is a heinous crime, and Edgerton explores this in heartbreaking detail.
There’s a permeating feeling of the whole world being askew that thrives in Boy Erased. This is not just because of the subject matter, but because of the way that Edgerton fills the cast with non-American actors – Crowe, Kidman, Edgerton, Canadian Xavier Dolan, Australian Troye Sivan, Brit Joe Alwyn, and Australian musician turned actor Flea. Whether this was a conscious choice or not, this kind of casting works to reinforce the feeling that the world Jared is forced to live in is one that’s foreign to him, and in turn, it carries a very ‘otherworldly’ feel to it. Yes, the faces look familiar to him, and the words they’re saying sound familiar, but his world has been flipped on its head and morphed into something entirely devoid of reality. The only time that there is some kind of warmth and safety extended to him comes from Cherry Jones (American) Dr. Muldoon, who advises Jared that how he feels, and who he is attracted to, is normal and is ok. The warmth that Jones bring to her brief appearance is greatly welcome in a film that carries a huge wealth of coldness. It’s an immensely powerful moment in a film that’s peppered with immensely powerful moments.
Kidman’s Nancy is a caring mother who lives in a world of social expectations – she is the wife of a preacher, and in turn, has to act as such. She cares deeply for her son, but is limited in what kind of protection and care she can provide him. The scenes between Kidman and Hedges are sweet and tender. On the flipside, there is also a form of tenderness from Crowe’s preacher, a man for whom his faith trumps everything. Yet, his tenderness is muted by his dedication to the Word of God. For me, as someone who does not follow a faith, I sometimes struggle to understand how someone can put the words within a book ahead of the clear suffering and pain that exists in front of them. Russell Crowe’s performance here helps inform how someone can reject the pain and suffering that their son is going through in lieu of being faithful to their faith. Edgerton never condones Marshall’s behaviour, but he certainly does allow us to understand how a man like Marshall could end up making the decisions he does.
Edgerton shows how ludicrous and money grabbing this whole conversion therapy endeavour is, with the manual the subjects have to work from being riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. Subjects have their personal belongings removed from them when they arrive at the facility, and any instances of possible ‘gay-ness’ is removed. Their phones are taken off them, with the threat that any stored number may be called at random to verify that the subject is no longer gay. To see families hand over their kids or loved ones willingly, and to subject them to a massive invasion of privacy, is in itself a disturbing endeavour.
While it’s easy to sit here in Australia and peer into the world of America and think ‘well, that country sure is messed up’, it’s also extremely hypocritical of me to do so. As the America the world once knew changes and bends to the will of Trump and his administration, citizens of the world look on in horror – almost helpless to the decisions that Trump makes. While Boy Erased focuses on an era where Trump was still a reality TV star (with the story taking place in the 2000’s), the spectre of what Trump and his anti-LGBTIQ+ Vice President Mike Pence looms large over this narrative. Gay conversion therapy still occurs in America, with religious institutions employing the techniques that Victor Sykes and many others utilise.
While I can look at Boy Erased and be thankful that I’m not subject to such actions, I’m kidding myself in thinking that this doesn’t occur here. While gay conversion therapy thrives in America, it also lives in secret in Australia. To call it ‘therapy’ is in itself a terrifying endeavour. It’s like calling waterboarding a ‘heavy shower’. It’s psychological torture, through and through, leaving many who are subject to it mentally scarred and, worse, feeling like they have no choice by to take their own life. Within Australia, there is only one state that has banned this treatment (Victoria), with other states yet to follow suit after the landmark decision to introduce marriage equality for all passed in 2017. Current opposition leader, Bill Shorten, has advised that if voted in, his government would work with the states and territories to help implement a comprehensive, nation-wide ban. One can hope that this is something that is implemented as it’s terrifying to know that in the Australia I live in, there are people going through what Garrard Conley and many others have gone through.
Boy Erased may not leave you infuriated that such things can occur, instead aiming to leave you understanding how such actions can occur, leaving a ruined family in its wake. Edgerton continues to impress as a triple threat – actor, writer, and most importantly, director – but it’s really Lucas Hedges show to steal. He delivers one of the finest performances of 2018, understated, yet heartfelt. Hedges carries a lived in feeling to Jared. It’s his performance alone that makes this essential viewing.
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman,Russell Crowe
Writer: Joel Edgerton