Because they’re the most widely consumed of popular art forms, movies and television have a unique ability to splash sunlight on the darker corners of American culture—and, if the projects are persuasive and well-made, to effect change. We may look back on 2018 as the year the movies, and therefore much of America, processed the horrors of conversion therapy.
The bracing, enormously moving “Boy Erased,” which opens today, is the year’s second major motion picture to address this fundamentalist scourge. The first one, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” spiked its message with humor. There are few laughs to be had in “Boy Erased”—no spoonfuls of sugars to sweeten the medicine.
Based on Gerrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, and directed by Joel Edgerton (“The Gift”), it’s an insider’s account of the author’s life-changing time at an Arkansas “treatment center,” as well as the key moments in his sexual awakening that led up to his stay. Lucas Hedges plays the renamed Jared, born to a Baptist minister father (Russell Crowe, hulkier than ever) and an overprotective mother (Nicole Kidman, sublime as always). When he comes out to his parents after a painful experience at college, he is all but ostracized from the family. His only hope, according to his community’s religious elders, is to repent for his sins and straighten out—so to speak—at a conversion center run by “ex-gay” motivator Viktor Sykes (Edgerton).
From 9 to 5 every day, his privacy is revoked, his bathroom privileges are supervised, his phone is confiscated. Another “formerly” gay speaker, played with gritty gusto by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, is brought in to judge their masculinity, in the form of a humiliating military-style lineup. Other absurdities include forcing the boys to participate in batting practice and to create family trees that list all of their ancestors’ supposed sins, from alcoholism to mental illness, that ostensibly turned their children gay.
In Edgerton’s disciplined hands as writer and director, the clinic comes across as equal parts prison and cult, and is ever more appalling for praying on its patients at their most vulnerable. By approaching homosexuality as a problem to be exterminated, its operators practice psychological barbarism that, for some of the teenagers, leads to physical violence. In a slow-motion sequence supplemented, a bit too heavily perhaps, with a somber score, one impressionable patient, Cameron (Britton Sear), is literally beaten with a Bible. The sequence could have played out without the stylistic underlines, but Edgerton wants us to make sure the message resounds: In conversion therapy, religion is weaponized.
For others, shame needn’t be enforced by motivational speakers at antispectic treatment centers. In a fearless and unforgettable flashback, Jared becomes close with a fellow student from a fundamentalist background (Joe Alwyn), only to be raped by him in his dorm room, a scene that plays out in a necessary, unbroken take. Afterwards, the offender slumps on the carpet in tears, himself the product of self-hating indoctrination. Edgerton has pity, and even sympathy, for everyone in this horrible scenario.
Hedges continues to emerge as one of the finest thespians of his generation. The pent-up pain so elegantly elucidated in films like “Manchester by the Sea” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” achieves full flower in “Boy Erased,” in which his character evolves, organically and plausibly, from shame to pride. If you’re not in a puddle by the end of this picture, you should have your tear ducts examined.
In movies like “The Gift” and “Loving,” Edgerton has become an artist sensitive to intolerance, persecution and the psychological ripples of toxic relationships. “Boy Erased” will be celebrated on the coasts for its beautiful rejections of the same, but where it most deserves to be seen are in the 36 states that still have no ban on the pseudoscientific, homophobic, malignant practice of conversion therapy. If seeing this movie can inspire the sort of action to enact laws in even one of them, it’s a legacy more important than Oscar nods.
“Boy Erased” opens today, Nov. 21, at most area theaters, including Cinemark Palace 20 and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, and Movies of Delray.