BOY ERASED REVIEWED
Two new films tackle gay conversion therapy and conclude that you can’t “pray the gay away”. Have they missed the opportunity to deliver this message where it’s most needed? By Jeremy Smith
Is the new film tackling gay conversion therapy preaching to the choir?
FOLLOWING the marriage equality victory in 2017, LGBTIQ Australians were asked what the next priority for our civil rights should be. According to a report in The Guardian Australia, a whopping 93 per cent of respondents said that banning the practice of “gay conversion therapy” should top the list.
Gay conversion therapy, sometimes referred to as “pray the gay away” is a sinister, unscientific practice that seeks to covert homosexuals into heterosexuals. It uses a variety of damaging psychological techniques including exorcism. It suggests that homosexuals are possessed of evil spirits and that “sufferers” will be “cured” if they turn to God. The practice is widely condemned by international health organisations.
Unfortunately, vulnerable young people are the most common victims of these “therapies”, administered at the recommendation of religious or spiritual leaders.
Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan and even China have banned the practice, as have several US and Canadian states, and the state of Victoria in Australia. The UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Germany all have plans to make it illegal.
Australia’s Federal Health Minter, Greg Hunt has affirmed that the government doesn’t support the practice, however, Prime Minister Scott Morrison infamously stated that conversion therapy was “not an issue” for him
– a statement so vague it’s uncertain where he stands on it.
This year, two major films deal with the subject. Both are based on best-selling novels, one of which is a first-hand account. The Miseducation Of Cameron Post stars Chloe Grace Moretz and is based on the book by Emily M Danforth, who was inspired by a teenager’s blog posts about his time at a conversion therapy camp.
The second is Boy Erased – already generating “Oscar buzz” – and is an adaption of Garrard Conley’s first-hand account of his conversion therapy experience. It’s an Australian production directed by Joel Edgerton who also plays the conversion therapy leader.
Its cast is impressive. Hot from his roles in two Best Picture-nominated films last year (Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), and his Oscar nomination for Manchester By The Sea in 2016, Lucas Hedges plays Jared, the teenager at the centre of the story. Nicole Kidman is Jared’s mum Nancy, with a performance that solidifies the “Kidman Renaissance” since her Emmy win for Big Little Lies last year; and Russell Crowe is Jared’s dad (reminding us of the time he played gay in one of his early breakout roles, The Sum Of Us in 1994). In supporting roles are Aussie music star Troye Sivan and Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan as other kids at the camp.
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is a story of teenage friendship and group survival in the face of discrimination, with scenes depicting the blossoming relationships at its heart. The film’s powerful climax scene is during a group therapy session, which emphasises the new relationships between the kids, and suggests the film is aimed at a younger audience.
The climax of Boy Erased depicts a far more disturbing group shaming scene (with an actual coffin and a boy being spanked with a bible). It’s far more intense than Cameron Post and its dramatic punch applies to Jared’s parents, Nancy and Marshall, rather than to Jared himself. Boy Erased is aimed at an older audience, including the parents of LGBTIQ kids. Indeed, while promoting the film on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Troye Sivan said as much.
Neither film speaks directly to LGBTIQ kids who might actually want to undertake conversion therapy and who believe they can become heterosexual. This is a glaring omission.
The protagonists in both Cameron Post and Boy Erased don’t want to go to the camps; they’re attending because of coercion by family. Troye Sivan’s character advises Jared to fake his therapy results in order to survive. Some background characters in these dramas present as believing in the therapy but their reasoning and stories are never adequately explored.
This gives us two stories in which characters succeed in overcoming adversity, rather than stories in which the lead characters experience a complete revision of their strongly held first positions.
More interesting and nuanced films would have focused on characters who don’t make it out; the boy or girl who goes willingly to the camps because they truly believe they can be changed. That would be a harder film to make but a more rewarding one in understanding how and why such monstrous places and practices continue to exist.
That isn’t to say that Boy Erased shies away from the horrors of the practice. Far from it. It’s a deeply disturbing, intense and hard-hitting drama that should come with several trigger warnings, not only for the traumatising selfhating practices of conversion therapy, but also for a depiction of campus rape and the theme of youth suicide.
I grew up in a very religious, Christian environment. In my childhood I experienced conversion therapy both personally and through members of my immediate family. I found the film excruciating. To those who have had similar experiences and are considering watching Boy Erased, be prepared to relive the ordeal in detail and beware of residual trauma
Boy Erased does not shy away from the horrors of the practice. It’s deeply disturbing and should come with several trigger warnings.
resurfacing. Watch it with a close friend who will be supportive afterwards.
Boy Erased’s best moments are in the parents’ powerful scenes of revelation and redemption. These moments are, unfortunately, handicapped by a directorial decision to mix up the progression of the film’s storyline. We open with Jared and his mother driving to, and enrolling in, the camp with the lead-up to this moment told through a series of flashbacks. This creates both confusion and diminishes the story arc and pacing.
When the climactic shaming therapy scene is revealed it comes as a surprise because the lead-up includes flashback scenes that disjoint the emotional punch of the present. Additionally, any nuance in the subject matter is lost by an overplaying Joel Edgerton. He sledgehammers the audience with the message of the stupidity and horror of the therapy without engaging in the conflicts of the soul that can lead hurting people to seek it out.
Boy Erased is full of great performances but is a disjointed film that never gets to the ugly heart of its subject. Rather than engaging with an audience that may benefit the most from its telling, it seems happy preaching to the choir. This flawed film is, nevertheless, worth watching for the powerhouse performances of the cast, particularly the masterly scenes between Jared and his parents. The Oscar buzz may reward the Boy Erased cast in spite of the film’s limitations.
A 2009 made-for-TV film, Prayers For Bobby is worth looking up. It deals with similar subject matter and stars Sigourney Weaver as the intolerant mother who must eventually find redemption.
Our Pentecostal PM may not think gay conversion therapy is an issue for him, but it may well become one in next year’s federal election campaign. Both The Greens and Labor have declared their intention to make the practice illegal. And, as yet, no one knows where Philip Ruddock’s Religious Freedom Review, commissioned after the marriage-equality win, will sit on the subject.
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post and Boy Erased are important films that need to be seen. They explain, in no uncertain terms, why gay conversion is dangerous and should not be legal and, as such, have the potential to save lives. We can only hope that they find their way to LGBTIQ people who struggling to reconcile their faith and their sexuality.
Joel Edgerton, Nicole Kidman and Troye Sivan at the Toronto Film Festival’s screening of Boy Erased.
Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe in Boy Erased.