Director Joel Edgerton’s movie Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, follows the harrowing story of gay teen Jared Eamons (played by Lucas Hedges), who undergoes conversion therapy, the process of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation. Eamons’ parents, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), a stay-at-home mom, and Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist preacher, who reside in Arkansas, send their son to an outpatient program called Love in Action, which is a Christian ministry that promises to eradicate his same-sex desires. As we witness the psychological violence inflicted on the organization’s young denizens, who are tormented daily for their gender expressions, crushes, fantasies, and homosexual experiences, the light in their eyes flickers out — one boy even takes his own life. While the movie crucially sounds the alarm on the damage that conversion therapy inflicts on LGBTQ adolescents, it also throws into sharp relief the power of finding your voice and the dangers of not asserting it.
With nuance and sensitivity, Kidman and Crowe portray parents whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict — war, really — with the very notion of homosexuality — and yet they deeply love their son. When they send him off to Love in Action, which is more like Cruelty in Action, it seems they actually believe they’re saving him from moral depravity and eternal damnation. Because he wants to please them and honor his faith, Jared cedes to their authority (even though he’s of age) — to his detriment. Love in Action exacerbates his self-loathing and inner turmoil.
But in the back of his mind, lingers a memory of an encounter with gay artist Xavier (Théodore Pellerin) that challenges his self-disgust and later helps him arrive at the conclusion that the program is a cruel sham: “I think we’re our own God,” Xavier says in a memorable scene, “He’s in us. In all of us…Stay with me…I’ll prove to you that God won’t strike you down.”
Eventually, Jared is able to draw on his internal strength to rally for his self-preservation when he witnesses a burly boy named Cameron (Britton Sear) being humiliated and accosted by the head of the program, Victor (played by Joel Edgerton, who also directed), for having a gay fling. In a key and richly symbolic scene, Jared locks himself in a bathroom stall, dials his mother and chokes out a string of sobbing words requesting her to pick him up. When Victor attempts to block him from fleeing, Cameron shoves the man to the ground and in a resounding voice he can’t use to defend himself, he defends Jared: “Leave him alone!” he shouts. When Jared’s mom Nancy arrives, full of maternal ferocity, she demands Victor set him free. In a moving tête-à-tête, Nancy admits to Jared she wasn’t totally in sync with the plan to send him to conversion therapy, but she submitted to her husband’s authority, she says, as she’s done her whole life:
“You know that night when pastor Wilkes and Jim came to the house? Those men decided what to do with you and I just… I fell into line like I usually do….a mother knows when something isn’t right. And I knew in my bones…I was just letting you down and I kept my mouth shut. And I will always regret that. But I can do a different thing now… Now that I have a chance. I’ll handle your father. He can fall into line with me for a change.”
Jared’s dad, Marshall, who’s spent a lifetime sermonizing at the pulpit, gets noticeably quieter toward the end of the movie as his wife and son begin to express themselves. Even he admits to seeking and following the council of “wiser men,” as opposed to listening to his own conscience, in sending Jared to Love in Action.
In a bold act of self-assertion, Jared writes an essay for The New York Times about his experience with conversion therapy. When his dad fails to respond, dodging his numerous calls and emails, Jared shows up on his doorstep, asking him what he thought of his piece. While Marshall can barely eke out a full sentence, Jared has finally found his voice.