The opening scene of Boy Erased, directed by Joel Edgerton, hints at it being a simple story about a series of complex issues, but the movie is anything but. The film, based on a memoir by the same name by Garrard Conley, tells the story of teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) who is sent to conversion therapy to “mend his homosexual ways”, and the journey of growth and transformation both he and his family go through. Born to Baptist father Marshall (played by Russell Crowe) and traditional Southern mother Nancy (played by Nicole Kidman), the movie begins by chronicling the simple and mundane ways of a family in a small Southern town and quickly dives into the real focus of the film—Jared’s homosexuality.
Crowe and Kidman bring Nancy and Marshall to life, giving you a real understanding of the fundamentalist upbringing Jared had. As the movie progresses, social tropes that are generally not widely discussed are brought to the forefront. While in college, Jared is raped by his roommate, shining a light on the helplessness and lack of understanding he’s faced most of his life. Jared’s dark night is brought to the attention of his parents by this roommate, who calls the family house pretending to be the college counsellor and reports Jared as the offender.
Marshall, not knowing any other way, uses his religious influences to attempt to drive his son back to his “true” self. His ignorance and stubborn attitude are evident when he says, “You cannot be born a homosexual,” and compares it to a profession. Calling on his Church colleagues, he decides to send his son to a conversion therapy program, ironically called “Love in Action (LIA)”, located in Kansas. Nancy accompanies Jared as they traverse the complexities of conversion therapy in the Deep South.
Supporting characters played by the likes of Xavier Dolan and Troye Sivan bring the fellow therapy attendees to life, and add dimension to an already complex story. As Jared attempts to make peace with and discover the truth of this therapy, his fellow attendees, unknowingly, guide him to his truth.
As the movie unfolds, so do the characters. Jared begins to come into his own, surrounded by suppressive therapy personnel who constantly attempt to shove “God’s ways” down his throat. You see Jared face his truth in a pivotal scene when a fake funeral is conducted for a fellow attendee who faltered and gave in to his “unnatural tendencies”. One of the most painful scenes to watch in a movie that is already so layered, we get to see Jared come into his own at the end of it, which is where the beauty of this movie lies. You watch the characters discover themselves on their own, and it’s a magical journey to experience.
While Jared goes through his transformation, Nancy is going through some changes in belief of her own. As Jared’s therapy continues, she watches her son lose sight of himself. As a rule, LIA states that parents aren’t permitted to read the course material, but Nancy breaks form and reads it, as an attempt to understand her son’s experience. Her move shows a pivotal shift in her belief system, and she takes charge of her son’s life when he finally asks to be taken away from therapy. We watch Nancy emerge from behind her husband’s shadow, taking charge of her child and her own beliefs, and it’s a thing of beauty.
The movie ends on a happy note, which is somewhat expected, despite everything it portrays. Years later, we see Jared living a happy life in New York City with his partner and band of friends. He’s made a name for himself by spilling the beans on the truth behind conversion therapy, garnering attention from publications across the country. While Nancy is supportive of his life, we see Marshall still stuck to his old ways, until Jared makes an attempt to break through to his father.
It’s one of those films you expect to leave you feeling angry and disturbed, but instead, you’re left with a sense of calm and subdued melancholy, despite the fact that a lot of what was portrayed on screen was truly painful to watch. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest screen to catch this movie.