Conversion therapy’s true nature outed in ‘Boy Erased’

BOY ERASED
Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) comforts her conflicted son, Jared (Lucas Hedges), in Boy Erased. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Most of us know gay conversion therapy is a hoax that preys on the fears of gay people and their families, especially those whose religion rejects non-traditional sexual orientations. What most of us don’t know—unless we’ve been unlucky enough to go through it—is just how this therapy attempts to bring about its unlikely transformation.

One person who does know is Gerrard Conley, whose parents pushed him into conversion therapy and who subsequently wrote Boy Erased, a memoir about his experience. The book has been brought to the big screen in a tale that is both harrowing and illuminating.

Directed by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay and portrays a key supporting character, the flick begins by spelling out the dilemma faced by its teenage protagonist.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of a Baptist preacher in a conservative Arkansas community. In an early scene, the Rev. Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) stops in the middle of a sermon to ask those who are imperfect to raise their hands. Of course, everyone does, but Jared seems to ponder the question before joining in. Maybe he’s already worried about the troubling thoughts he has hidden from others and barely acknowledges himself.

On the surface, Jared appears to be a “normal” kid. He even has a girlfriend, whom his father and mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), fully expect to become his future wife. They’re disappointed when Jared breaks up with her before going off to college.

But their real shock comes when they receive an anonymous phone call from someone on campus who accuses their son of homosexual leanings. Jared initially denies the charge but eventually admits it may be true. Faced with an ultimatum from his father—change or be ostracized from the family—he agrees to give conversion therapy a try.

Jared’s first days in the program seem harmless enough. Instructors led by Victor Sykes (director Edgerton in a restrained but creepy performance) try to reason the participants out of their sexual preference. You’re not born gay, they’re told, any more than athletic participant Cameron (Britton Sear) was born wanting to play football. And if you choose to be gay, the argument goes, you can choose to stop being gay.

It’s not long, though, before Jared begins noticing signs that the therapy is neither as effective nor as benign as he’d hoped. A fellow participant urges him to simply play along with the program in order to convince the instructors he’s on his way to a cure. But playing along becomes more difficult when increasingly coercive measures are used to achieve the desired results.

The film reveals Jared’s state of mind with the help of well-placed flashbacks to times when he was torn between his religious beliefs and his sexual longings. He dearly wants to change in order to remain part of his family, but his faith in the therapy falters as his experiences at the clinic become more and more nightmarish. The resulting tension builds to a wrenching climax.

This earnest tale is told with the help of a cast that is almost uniformly fine. I seldom find Kidman’s portrayals completely convincing, but she’s at least adequate as Jared’s concerned mother. Meanwhile, Hedges wins our sympathy as Jared, and Crowe does a fine job of convincing us the Rev. Eamons is a caring parent despite the hell he puts his son through.

Because the story is based on actual people, it ends by relating what eventually happens to the characters’ real-life counterparts. Some of the developments are uplifting, and at least one is surprising. Or maybe it won’t be to those who are good at reading between the lines.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Boy Erased (rated R) opened Nov. 15 at the Gateway Film Center and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

 

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Beware of ex-classmates bearing fish

Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)
Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)

By Richard Ades

Joel Edgerton is determined to set our nerves on edge with The Gift, and he succeeds pretty well. The writer/director/co-star knows just how to push the audience’s collective buttons.

The tale revolves around Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who no sooner move into their new California home than they run into one of the husband’s old classmates: Gordo. Thanks to Edgerton’s subtly creepy portrayal, we instantly distrust this guy—to the extent that our stomachs tighten a little when Gordo overhears the couple’s new address.

Sure enough, he’s soon showing up unannounced, invariably when Robyn is home alone. Annoyed, Simon recalls that Gordo was always a “weirdo” and suggests that he has the hots for the pretty Robyn. She, on the other hand, thinks he’s just trying to be helpful.

Robyn, as we eventually learn, is not an accomplished judge of character.

As Gordo’s behavior grows more and more erratic, director Edgerton builds tension by supplying a series of shocks constructed in the time-honored fashion: He primes us with scenes of quiet dread followed by a sudden sight or sound. These are fun, especially when experienced with a vulnerable audience.

But Edgerton’s goal ultimately extends beyond eliciting Pavlovian responses. We learn that Simon has more history with Gordo than he’s willing to admit. It’s an ugly history that Simon would like to forget and that Gordo is unable to let go.

Frankly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the early scenes, with their stock shocks, and the third act, with its unexpected complexity. That’s one of the few signs that this first-time director has more to learn.

A bigger disappointment is that the tale’s female lead is less interesting than her male counterparts.

Edgerton’s Gordo, as stated, is wonderfully creepy, while Bateman’s Simon has a tendency toward ruthlessness that becomes increasingly obvious as the story unfolds. As for Hall’s Robyn, we never quite get a handle on her.

We know she’s an accomplished interior designer, mostly because her husband tells us she is. We also know she has a history of pregnancy-related trauma and addiction. But she mainly comes across as simply a woman in danger—more of a plot device than a flesh-and-blood character.

Hall makes her watchable, but Edgerton’s script fails to make her knowable. The result: Even though The Gift continually scares us and surprises us, it never quite moves us.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Gift, rated R, opens Friday (Aug. 7) at theaters nationwide.