Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, follows 19-year-old Jared Eamons as he undergoes gay conversion therapy after being outed to his Baptist parents. The film stars Lucas Hedges as Jared, Nicole Kidman portraying Jared’s hairdresser mother, and Russell Crowe portraying his stern father, a car dealer and a preacher. Director and producer Joel Edgerton plays Victor Sykes, the chief therapist at the conversion program.
Jared’s story is told in fragments, alternating between his present-day experiences in the conversion program and his memories of college and home. Program participants are required to stand at the front of the church where the therapy group meets and recite their “moral inventory,” a description of all their homosexual sins which they now must renounce.
When Jared is writing a list of his “transgressions”, the first name he puts down is Henry. The film flashes back to the beginning of Jared’s freshman year, when Jared meets the charismatic peer who quickly becomes his running buddy. One night, Henry brutally rapes Jared in his dorm room and confesses that he also raped a 14-year-old boy from his church. The scene contains excellent acting that it’s all the more disturbing and difficult to stomach.
Weeks later, Henry calls Jared’s mother and tells her that Jared is gay. After hours of the silent treatment, Jared’s father asks his son, “Do you want to change?” There’s a long pause before Jared answers. That pause alone suggests that he’s dying to say no. As the film’s tagline states, “the truth cannot be converted,” and Jared appears to know this all along. But when he glances at his teary-eyed mother, he eventually says yes.
It’s clear that Jared is a mama’s boy, and Mrs. Eamons’ character arc is perhaps the most impressive of the film. She drives Jared to therapy every day, because Jared has to surrender his driver’s license to the therapists, among other belongings like his phone. She also takes him out to eat, and she asks him about his experiences.
Nicole Kidman’s performance as a mother who has a change of heart is riveting. Initially, she always defers to her husband’s wishes. At the end of the film, Jared steals his phone back from his counselors and calls her to come pick him up in the middle of a particularly abusive day. Mrs. Eamons shows up as a mom on a mission, shouting “Shame on you!” at Victor Sykes as her and Jared peel out of the parking lot. She tells Jared that his dad wants him to go back to the program, but she won’t let that happen, and she finally puts her foot down. With tears in her eyes, she apologizes to Jared for failing him.
Unfortunately, Jared doesn’t get quite so lucky with his father. Mr. Eamons never asks Jared if he’s okay after finding out about the rape, and he never asks about Jared’s experiences in therapy. When Jared calls him to say he wants to come home and doesn’t feel like he’s changed at all, his father simply tells him to keep trying. Mr. Eamons is clearly ashamed of his son. In prioritizing his faith over his own child, Jared’s father epitomizes the clash between religious persons’ deep devotion to their religious ideologies and empathizing with the gay community.
Sadly, Mr. Eamons’ tough attitude toward his son is indicative of what many LGBTQ youth endure. The film’s ending credits display the statistic that over 700,000 LGBTQ youth have been subjected to gay conversion therapy. The therapy remains legal in many states.
The film has some lighthearted moments, but it is overwhelmingly heavy. Lucas Hedges convincingly portrays a young man struggling to reconcile his identity with his family’s beliefs. His character gets the happy ending he deserves, entering into a healthy, loving relationship just as Garrard Conley did in real life; however, Jared goes endures a considerable amount of turmoil to get to his happy place. In sum, Boy Erased will tirelessly tug at viewers’ heartstrings and strongly resonate with members of the LGBTQ community who are still struggling with the suppression or oppression of their identity.