Boy Erased: “Not Quite Erased, But Not Fully Drawn”
One of the defining depictions of evil on film, for me, is Robert Mitchum’s character in Night of the Hunter. It’s the way he balances menace and clumsiness, a wolf who is also a Wile E. Coyote, slipping on bottles and suffering head injuries and yowling as his fingers jam in the cellar door. The film stresses that anyone who is that wrong must necessarily seem ridiculous, because the alternative would suggest that such profound, predatory wrongness is in any way natural. Boy Erased’s predatory villain, a gay conversion therapy perpetrator played by the film’s director Joel Edgerton, has a ridiculous moustache, and is ridiculously unqualified to conduct any sort of therapy. He is a manipulative bully, both psychologically and, in a few scenes, physically, although he stops just short of preventing children from being rescued by their parents.
Recently fallen into his clutches is Lucas Hedges’ Jared Eamons, the son of a hairdresser mother (Nicole Kidman) and a car dealer-cum-Baptist preacher father (Russell Crowe— there’s a substantial Australian supporting cast, not all of whom have been given the necessary time to perfect their Southern US accents). After a traumatic experience at the hands of a college peer, Jared is blackmailed and outed to his parents. In the space of a quick midnight consultation with their church elders at the dinner table, they decide to send him (with his apparent consent) to therapy at ‘Love in Action’, where a spectrum of coerced to self-coerced ‘patients’ are told that their parents and families must be at the root of their supposed ‘disease’, and are subjected to a range of dangerous, unethical and ridiculous ‘treatments’.
So the ridiculous is present, albeit faintly, and its presence yields a few moments of satisfyingly weaponised humour. But you need only listen to Troye Sivan’s spare, damp Oscar-baiting ballad (regrettably co-penned by Jonsi of Sigur Ros, somehow) and look at the film’s muddy colour palette to begin to suspect that this is a spare, damp film. Actually watching it yields a few nice surprises— not least of which is Xavier Dolan’s bizarre but impressively intense cameo as the most self-consciously masculine, self-oppressive patient in therapy— but not enough to dispel the feeling that this is a depressingly lukewarm, tonally flat, po-faced look at an issue that is desperately in need of some German expressionist shadows and cartoonish chase sequences.
Ok, maybe not those things specifically, but something, at least! The aforementioned ballad was apparently inspired by one of the film’s best scenes, a flashback during which our protagonist, before his parents send him to be tortured, has an almost-healthy almost-sexual experience with a boy his age in college. He’s traumatised and frightened of intimacy, but the other boy is understanding, so they fall asleep just holding hands, and the film fades out on this moment of reassuring beauty.
As the film unfolds, though, I started to realise the shortcomings of placing moments like this in their own peaceful narrative oasis. The film veers between triumphs and traumas too sharply, simplifying both, always failing to delve into the tough questions and specifics— what happens the morning after that night? How, much later, having physically escaped his homophobic confines, does the well-adjusted, out gay man we see in the epilogue process his trauma? That’s undoubtedly the subject of the book on which the film is based, a personal account by journalist Garrard Conley, who went through a version of these experiences in his late teens. But we never get that kind of insight, settling instead for the spectacle of the trauma itself, as well as the eventual coming-around of Jared’s parents, especially his mother, whose love and concern for her son, and perceptive skewering of the therapist’s methods, win out over her holding a marital joint account at the bank of homophobia.
The filmmakers have declared lofty-humble ambitions for their project— Joel Edgerton intending this film to be seen by adults who hold positions of responsibility over LGBT youth (right-wing conservative parents, crooked therapists, lawmakers— you know, the target demographic for Sundance-premiering indie dramas), but also that the film will eventually have no reason to exist, society having moved on. I think that the latter says everything about the film’s narrow scope and failure to really explore Jared as a character in his own right, but I’ll stick to the text rather than the press junket.
It’s the text that tells us, at the end of the film, that the character on whom Joel Edgerton’s conversion therapist is based eventually renounced his practice and married a man. This elicited some laughter from members of the audience, and I won’t deny that this particular title card was structured like a punchline. But a better film wouldn’t have left this kind of detail until the end, and thrown it out so carelessly. Whether intentionally or not, it reinforces the homophobic idea that all homophobes are secretly gay. The fact is, the therapist in question was an ex-gay convert himself, having divorced his wife previously— he’d already had a messy history of wrestling with this particular issue and presumably had his own trauma and repression to work through, which is no laughing matter. I suspect that the coincidence of an ex-gay being in charge of a church’s gay conversion program has more to do with the fact that no homophobic straight church elder would deign to go near a group of gay kids, even with a ten-foot pole. Having a gay man run your suburban, strip-mall conversion therapy program is a convenient way of getting rid of every bird with a single stone. A film more interested in having an adult conversation about virulent homophobia, toxic masculinity, how trauma echoes and repeats and spreads, might have incorporated these details into its story, not its pre-credits sequence.
It doesn’t sit well that a film about gay conversion therapy would ultimately place so much emphasis on the process Jared goes through to patch up his relationship with his parents, making a superhuman emotional effort to redefine it on his own terms, demanding their acceptance. That’s all admirable, but it merely replaces one kind of gay conversion with another— Jared’s parents don’t really have to change all that much; his father still belongs to the same church, but he’ll look his son in the eye now. Almost nothing is said about the effort Jared must have made independently, to process his trauma and be able to function as an out gay man after all that has happened. Instead the film is interested, just as all his conversion therapists were, in assimilating Jared back into a society that despises him— not quite erased, but not fully drawn, either.