What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? That, more or less, is the question asked by the new Joel Edgerton-directed film Boy Erased, which was featured at the Austin Film Festival and opens nationwide this weekend, just in time for awards season. The unstoppable force is fundamentalist Christianity, personified by parents Marshall and Nancy Eamons (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman), Arkansas Baptists unable to brook the idea that their son Jared (Lucas Hedges) might be gay. The immovable object is Jared’s sexual orientation itself, put to the test by a so-called ex-gay ministry tasked with converting him into a good, straight, Christian boy.
As the film begins, Jared shares his parents’ hope that he can change. He takes instruction on how to stand up straight (“Ask yourself: Is this a manly shape I’m making, or is it a feminine shape?”) and how to shake hands with firm resolve. He fills out a family tree, looking for scapegoats for his pathology by labeling relatives with the vices and sins they’ve struggled with, from alcoholism and pornography to same-sex attraction. He asks his mother for help filling out the diagram, and she reveals the existence of an uncle that Jared has never heard of. He moved off to Louisiana decades before and was “real feminine-like,” Nancy confides.
The stakes here are clear enough to viewers, if not yet to Jared or his mother: Either Jared must somehow succeed in changing his sexuality, or his parents must change their ideology. Otherwise, the family will be destroyed, and perhaps Jared along with it.
It will surprise no one that Jared’s conversion is less than successful. The junk science of gay conversion therapy has few defenders outside the religious right. The American Psychological Association considers it unethical. In 2001, President George W. Bush’s surgeon general, David Satcher, reported that “there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.” Yet the practice continues, often linked to Baptist and evangelical communities in the South.
Erstwhile Austinite author James Hannaham satirized ex-gay ministries brilliantly in his 2009 novel God Says No, perhaps a truer testament to the absurdity of these fly-by-night operations, though too dark for Hollywood in more ways than one. “Boy Erased,” based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, is the first wide-release film to reckon with these fraught institutions. (A smaller indie on similar themes, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize this January.)
Boy Erased plays like a horror movie sandwiched by a family drama, with a sprinkling of gay-coming-of-age on top. All three elements are successful enough, but it’s the family thread, even more than the centerpiece institutional creep-show, where the film’s true heart resides. This is also the element of the movie most likely to change hearts and minds.
Filmmakers are warned against constructing stories around characters who don’t have to change. Jared is clearly one of those characters. As good as Lucas Hedges is at reaction shots — you might recognize him from Manchester by the Sea — his character’s journey is predictable, from wrongly desiring to change to understanding, correctly, that it’s his parents who really ought to do the changing. His most compelling scenes concern the trauma that leads to his coming-out, told in flashback; once Jared is in the ex-gay ministry, he does more observing than speaking. Luckily, he also has his mother along for the trip.
It may be odd for viewers from Southern Baptist backgrounds to see this regional story dramatized by a trio of Australian A-listers (Crowe, Kidman and Edgerton), but their work is uniformly excellent, too. Edgerton is just shifty enough as head therapist Victor Sykes, who sets off subtle alarm bells. (“You don’t want to end up living in one of those houses for any length of time,” a fellow inmate warns Jared of the dormitories at the back of the ministry. “I’ve heard the stories, and they’re not good.”) Crowe turns in fine physical work in a smaller role, leading from the belly as a car dealership proprietor and budding Baptist pastor publicly embarrassed by his son’s proclivities. (“God help me,” are his first words after his son comes out to him.) But it’s Kidman who will likely get awards-season notice for her performance, because she holds the key to the viewer’s emotions. As soon as we realize, halfway through, Nancy’s potential for heroism, already the waterworks begin to slosh and stir in preparation. When she finally rises to the occasion, there won’t be a dry eye in the room.
After taking viewers through the wringer, Boy Erased turns out not to be nearly as fatalistic as its title implies. Conversion is possible, it suggests — just not for sexual orientation. A mellowing of the religious right after an encounter with LGBT pride is, of course, the proper avenue for hope in this scenario, and we need hopeful stories to begin to examine problematic institutions. Many of us know less optimistic stories of anti-LGBT intolerance in the Bible Belt, however, and many of the protagonists of those other, untold stories are less intellectually gifted, self-possessed and conventionally masculine than Jared. Onscreen, it gets better, and that’s a message countless kids who happen upon this film will need to hear. In reality, however, we still have a long way to go.
Or maybe there can be a happy ending for everyone. At the end of the film we learn that John Smid, the real-life inspiration for Sykes, no longer practices ex-gay conversion therapy. He lives in Texas now, with his husband.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that John Smid, the real-life inspiration for character Victor Sykes, lives with his boyfriend. In fact, he is married. The Observer regrets the error.