'Boy Erased' is a harrowing true tale of gay conversion therapy

Navigating the turbulent seas of adolescent heterosexuality is tough enough. But the Straits of Teen Homosexuality are even more perilous — especially for the son of devout Christian fundamentalists.

Jared (Lucas Hedges) is such a lad in “Boy Erased,” a deeply affecting true story based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir.

From the opening home movies of an effervescent little kid in Arkansas (“Land of Opportunity”), it jumps a dozen or so years to a strangely silent breakfast, after which his protective mom, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), drives him to what we assume is his first day of college.

“Don’t put your hand out the window,” she says. “What if a truck came along and …”

'Boy Erased'



  • Starring: Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman.
  • Rating: R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use.

“That can’t happen,” says the melancholy boy.

“It’s happened before,” she replies, then adds reassuringly, “You’ll do great.”

But it’s not college they’re headed for. It’s the first day of conversion therapy.

Jared was already in college when, at 19, he is “outed” to his parents — owners of a thriving car dealership — just as his father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), is about to be ordained a Baptist minister.

It’s not the last time he’ll be betrayed to (or by) his folks. But they’re no stereotyped monsters. Nancy is a docile wife and sweetheart of a mother. Marshall preaches gently: “Show of hands — everybody who’s perfect?” he asks his congregation.

Jared is a mortified believer who has tried agonizingly hard to resist his feelings.

“I think about men,” he confesses, in one of the film’s many emotionally wrenching scenes. “I’m so sorry …”

The loving parents appeal to a tribunal of local religious leaders for guidance. The verdict:

“Your mother and I don’t see how you can continue to live under our roof, or work at the dealership,” says Marshall.

Jared is given the choice of being disowned or agreeing to a church-supported conversion therapy program to “cure” his homosexuality.

But this 12-step program and its charismatic leader Victor Sykes (played by director Joel Edgerton himself) are very different from AA’s. The primary step is to acknowledge that “you are not born homosexual — it’s a choice.” Your wrong choice stems from your family’s failings. Were your parents drug users or alcoholics? Sex or gambling addicts? Tell us what you’re angry about.

“I’m not angry,” says Jared.

The insistent correction: Yes, you are. The message from Victor: Confess to it in your moral inventory, if you want to get out of here.

The message from Jared’s dangerously sexy roommate is: “Fake it till you make it.”

Young Mr. Hedges, who received an Oscar nomination for “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), is superb in the title role here, but for that matter, the performances are powerful all around. Mr. Crowe forsakes his trademark larger-than-life style for a kind of low-key John Goodman effect. Ms. Kidman is maddeningly believable.

Their portrayals help compensate for director-screenwriter Edgerton’s storytelling deficiencies, the heavy-handed music and the fairy-tale coda. They can’t quite compensate for a way-over-the-top scene in which a recalcitrant boy (Britton Sear) is beaten over the head with a Bible.

Even so, “Boy Erased’s” intense depiction of the psychological trauma such programs can inflict is less a polemic than a painfully empathetic film experience, with the hopeful possibility of forgiveness. Common homosexual conversion techniques prior to 1980 included chemical castration, aversive electro-shock applications to hands and genitals, and neurologist Walter Freeman’s “ice-pick” lobotomies (he did 3,000 such surgeries) in the 1940s and ’50s.

The pseudo-scientific practice of trying to change sexual orientation is now recognized by the medical-psychiatric community and the U.S. surgeon general as both ineffective and potentially harmful, based as it is on the false assumption that LGBT people suffer from a mental disorder.

Come to find out, Anna Freud — daughter of the great Sigmund — was a longtime champion and practitioner of such now-discredited therapy. In that, she differed from her wiser daddy who, half a century earlier in “On Sexuality,” wrote: “In general, to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse."

Oedipus aside — father knows best.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

Subscribe to BarryParis.com RSS Feed