Political Film Review #575

In small towns throughout the United States, where college education is a rarity, many children grow up in authoritarian families and attend church services where the pastor tries to explain what is happening by referring to the Christian bible as the only source of wisdom.
Jared Eamons (played by Lucas Hedges) grows up in such a family in Arkansas (though filming is in Atlanta). Marshall, his father (Russell Crowe), owns an automobile agency and is the town’s Baptist pastor on Sundays. As a teenage boy, Jared experiences an attraction to other boys, and he carries his impulses through to a couple of relationships while in high school. At some point, townspeople find out and report the fact to his father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman), whereupon his father decides to commit Jared to a facility where gay tendencies supposedly can be eradicated over an indefinite period.

Upon entry to the facility, all personal possessions are surrendered, depriving “patients” of outside cellphone contact. The brainwashing experience is conducted principally by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), an individual with a military bearing who pretends to have psychological expertise. One exercise consists of drawing a family tree and identifying who in the lineage had been guilty of some sort of sin, as if to suggest a biological drive. Yet the conversion therapist insists that all sins are human choices, not biologically determined. Physical therapy is also involved. At some point, each person is expected to confess his sin to the others and state that they have vanquished their impulses. One wise inmate urges Jared to fake conversion so that he can get out. Another inmate, having difficulty, is urged to confess negative emotions about his father and ultimately experiences a ritual in which he is hit by copies of the bible, placed in a bathtub, and presumably brought to the point of drowning so that he can bury untoward emotions. When Jared is on the “hot seat,” however, he refuses to condemn his father, as demanded, and bolts from the facility after recovering his cellphone to call his mother, who then rescues him and admits her mistake in agreeing to the therapy. Jumping to a scene “four years later,” Jared has completed college, lives in New York, travels back to Arkansas, and invites his mother and father to the Big Apple for Christmas. In a scene with his father, he invites him to change his bias and accept him as gay.

As credits roll, Jared is identified as Garrard Conley, the author of a memoir with the same name, on which the film is based. Directed by Joel Edgerton, Boy Erased ends with a title identifying 600,000 persons still subjected to conversion therapy, which is legal in two-thirds of the United State. Titles inform that Edgerton now lives with his husband in New York—as does Sykes in Texas! Unmistakably, the film provides insight into what life is like in parts of the country that vote for Trump—where authoritarian personalities are told by pastors what to believe. The Political Film Society has nominated Boy Erased as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2018. MH