Sometimes, films that present themselves as a form of “advocacy” end up being the most inadvertently offensive. As a queer film critic watching Boy Erased from director Joel Edgerton, which depicts the horrors of a young man’s experience in a gay conversion camp, I could sense that the film clearly thought its heart was in the right place. After all, these camps are still legal in 41 states, and we currently have a Vice President who’s made it abundantly clear that he’d prefer to fund these abhorrent institutions rather than HIV/AIDS crisis centers. Don’t we need films to expose the venomous underbelly of these organizations, which thrive on brainwashing children through endless hours of abuse in hopes of them being “cleansed?”
Yes, of course we do. And yet it’s not always what you say but how you say it that gets the point across. In the case of Boy Erased, the title is unintentionally apt: It washes out any sense of queer desire within its protagonist, primarily for the purpose of mainstream (i.e. straight) audiences to empathize with him as a cipher rather than an actual character. And considering that the film is based on a memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, framing this man’s trauma through a heteronormaitive gaze makes the experience all the more distasteful.
The film opens with Conley, played here by Lucas Hedges, checking himself into the “Love in Action” program right outside of Memphis, Tennessee. Through flashbacks, we learn that his father, Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), a deeply devout Baptist preacher, provided him with the ultimatum of attending conversion camp or hitting the streets after being outed by a former friend. Forced to give up all of his possessions upon entering the facility, Conley and the other boys spend their days being chastised by the program’s oppressive founder, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), who hammers home the same clichéd, Evangelical rhetoric on how “homosexuality is a choice.” As Sykes’s methods grow increasingly sadistic over time, Conley opens his eyes to the camp’s relentless cruelty and begins to retort, leading him down a painful, but revelatory, path to self-acceptance.
It’s a shame, though, that the film never has the conviction to burrow into Conley’s mind. I haven’t read Conley’s memoir, but Joel Edgerton’s derivative screenplay and pedestrian direction consistently keeps us at arm’s length from Conley’s inner struggle, preferring to use him as a tour guide for the camp’s carnivalesque array of atrocities. Eventually, he’s promoted to little more than an emblematic martyr for gay suffering, and not just at the mercy of what the camp puts him through, but how his queerness shines a light on the true nature of his family and peers.
Therein lies the main flaw: This is not a film that’s interested in Garrard Conley (or Jared, as he’s unnecessarily renamed in the film), but the straight, white folks who orbit around him. As a result, Conley is essentially a prop to be gawked at for the sake of educating straight, white viewers on the necessity of gay tolerance. As a result, Edgerton’s backhanded activism isn’t just reductive, it’s ultimately harmful.
This is especially true when it comes to depicting Conley’s sexuality on-screen. His queerness is always presented as a burden, and the film is never invested in portraying the afterglow of acceptance that can exist on the other side of the rainbow. As someone who was in the closet throughout high school, I can attest that it is a struggle, even as someone who grew up with supportive, liberal parents in a suburban town in New England. Yet, Edgerton has no understanding of queer psychology; his compositions are flat and provide no insight into Conley’s complicated, often contradictory feelings.
The only scene of real sexual contact Conley has with another boy is when he’s violently raped by his friend, Henry (Joe Alwyn) in an extended sequence that’s as exploitative as anything I’ve seen in a film this year. Edgerton’s camera leers on the act for several seconds, forcing us to endure the most traumatic incident of Conley’s life with no other purpose than to invoke pity. That is, until his assaulter breaks down sobbing, transitioning to a close-up of his face as he states, “there’s something wrong with me,” and “I’m going to get in so much trouble.” Confoundingly, Edgerton merely cuts back to Hedges for reaction shots, sidelining Conley for the sake of shining an empathetic spotlight on a sexual predator.
What exactly is Edgerton trying to say here? That sometimes men in the closet end up committing rape out of repression, and that we should feel sorry for them? That’s some Fox News-level ideology, and it made me furious that in a film that’s not even brave enough to show a same-sex kiss, this horrific event that actually happened to Conley has been tainted even further through Edgerton’s grotesque reenactment to victimize him further.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how another film released earlier this year, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, tackled the same subject matter with more nuance and sensitivity. The fact that it’s written and directed by Desiree Akhavan, who herself identifies as queer, is a factor that can’t be ignored when examining how she frames her characters’ blossoming sexuality in a manner that somehow manages to be both frank and undeniably delicate. That’s not to imply that straight filmmakers are incapable of authentically conveying queer stories on-screen, as proven with Ang Lee’s iconic Brokeback Mountain and Eliza Hittman’s underappreciated indie gem, Beach Rats, both of which tune into certain anxieties while simultaneously embracing the queer awakening of their protagonists through their own formalist approach.
The difference with Boy Erased is that Edgerton remains solely fixated on pain. Considering that queer folks have suffered enough both on-screen and off, we deserve better than to have this kind of miseralibist Oscar-bait pretend to have our best interest at heart. Depicting these acts on-screen isn’t an act of defiance speaking out against real-world injustices; it’s merely rubbing salt in the wound.