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Review: Boy Erased

I’m lucky enough to have never been remotely close to a terrifying experience like gay conversion therapy. Yet, as a gay man born and raised in Catholic Sicily in the 80s-90s, I know shame and self-loathing first-hand: I’ve lived in the closet for a long time and have suffered psychological and emotional bullying from people in the church. That’s why Joel Edgerton’s sophomore feature as a filmmaker hit close to home and despite some inevitable narrative hurdles that come with adapting a book, Boy Erased is an important film, at the very least for putting this hideous practice under the spotlight.

Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, this hard-to-digest true story is portrayed on screen in the form of an intense yet understated drama which some may find too dry. However, Edgerton’s greatest merit in approaching the source material is indeed that of avoiding a run-of-the-mill Hollywood melodrama and actually handle the sensitive subject matter with a delicate and realistic touch as he progressively unveils the protagonist’s painful emotional journey.

Just as the author uses made up names to refer to the people in his real-life story, the film even renames the author and his family. On screen, Garrard Conley is Jared Eamons, the teenage son of a Baptist preacher in the American South, raised strongly in his family’s religious faith and headed towards a psycho-emotional collapse when he realizes he might be gay. Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea, LadyBird) plays our protagonist with the intensity and sincerity that have earned him an Oscar nomination and carries the emotional weight of the story with grace.

The film opens with a sombre early morning breakfast for the Eamons family at the break of dawn, which sets the tone of the film. Jared is about to be driven by his mother (an always superb Nicole Kidman) to his first day of “ex-gay” therapy and the story is told with an alternation of flashbacks that catch us up with how Jared wound up in this situation. Both the book and the film make immediately clear that Jared is not being dragged to gay conversion therapy. After being outed by someone in college (under complex circumstances we’ll avoid spoiling), the boy has no choice but admit the truth to his parents and when faced with the possibility of being shunned by his family, he complies with trying the therapy.

This is an important detail which sums up the essence of the story and of what conversion therapy is all about. By instilling doubt in the victims, especially those who have already been indoctrinated since tender age with religious faith, the belief that something is wrong with you and needs fixing keeps growing exponentially and keep gnawing at you piece by piece until all that’s left is a shell of the real you. And of course, if the people you love the most are the ones making you feel like you need fixing, how could you not comply to avoid losing them?

Garrard Conley’s beautifully written memoir is masterful at delving into the author’s relationship with his parents, especially with his preacher father, played in the film by a well measured Russell Crowe, who basically gives him an ultimatum when it comes to facing his conflicted feelings. And the same goes for the bond Conley has with his mother, who gradually understands that what she and her husband are putting their son through is rotten. Unfortunately, Joel Edgerton’s film lacks the same depth, cutting several of those moments, as it focuses more on Jared’s time at the conversion centre and their practices, although that is also understandable for the scope of the film.

After all, the main goal for a movie like Boy Erased is to expose and denounce a chilling reality whose very existence many even deny. In a recent article he wrote for Out Magazine, Conley asks the readers: “If I tell you how many we number, will you listen to our stories? If I tell you that before we possessed this figure, before we learned that there are 700,000 conversion therapy survivors in the United States alone, and that very few people we met could express anything other than incredulity and doubt upon learning that we exist — would you believe me?

That’s why Edgerton can’t be overly faulted for his adaptation choices and his effort is appreciated for the way he directs his cast and delivers a few gut punches by never sensationalizing anything, but by drawing us in one uncomfortable and deeply moving moment at a time. He’s also rather spot-on in the role he carved out for himself, that of the conversion centre’s ambiguous and manipulative leader Victor Sykes. However, the overall tepid reception and lack of awards season love for the film since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival back in September is not surprising.

Maybe though, the greatest merit of Boy Erased is that by not doing full justice to the essence of Garrard Conley’s brilliant memoir, it ignites the viewer’s curiosity towards the source material. That’s what it did for me, and I couldn’t recommend this book enough. We need to learn more about a disgusting practice that is still a terrifying reality, as more awareness needs to be raised and more action to be taken in order to change things. The courage of men like Conley, who exposed his scars by sharing his personal story and continues to fight passionately for the truth with his activism, is inspirational and deserves to be listened to.

Boy Erased is in UK cinemas from February 8th

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