By Troy Ribeiro
Director Joel Edgerton's "Boy Erased", based on the book "Boy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conely", is a heart-rending drama that aims to influence the debate on acceptance of gays and the effects of the gay conversion therapy.
In the conversion therapy programme, LGBTQ men and women are subjected to extensive "retraining", through techniques ranging from religious instruction to outright physical brutality in order to allegedly restore them to heterosexuality.
The efficacy of the programme is debateable as it has been shown to be incredibly harmful to its victims. One's sexual orientation is not a "choice" or a mental disorder but inherent to one's very self and identity, and attempts to bury, twist or distort can lead to lasting psychological damage and even, in some tragic cases, suicide.
Narrated in a non-linear manner, the film tells us about the turmoil of Jared Eamons, the son of the Baptist Pastor Marshall Eamons and his wife Nancy.
Jared's suppressed sexuality comes to the fore when he goes away to college, although it is partially brought out as a prelude to an ugly sexual assault, further muddying his already confused feelings. His parents, who are devout Christians are unsure what to do about his homosexual leanings, just as Jared is about himself. So he is sent off to 'Love in Action', a conversion therapy camp run by the head therapist Victor Sykes.
As Jared spends his 12 days in the program, he gets to know the other patients and the staff members there. The true hideous nature of the camp is revealed. He also begins to understand that there is nothing wrong with either him or his sexuality. And how he convinces his parents about this, forms the crux of the tale.
While the family scenes are delicately handled, refraining from reducing its members into caricatures, the scenes in the conversion facility are also surprisingly textured. The head-therapist seems to have some sexual identity issues of his own, though this is one element that has been insinuated, it is clearly underplayed. But the other characters at this centre are sharply delineated and are performed sincerely by the actors.
Lucas Hedges steals the show in the complex role, as Jared. The pain and psychological aftermath of the rape in college is written all over his face, as is his hurt and disappointment when he seeks solace from his parents.
Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Jared's parents are natural. Crowe captures the single-mindedness of a religious zealot, along with the genuine concern for his son. And Kidman's Nancy evolves recognising her own subjugation in a male-dominated community.
Rock musician Flea oozes menace as one of the harsh group leaders and the other kids in the program, played by Xavier Dolan, Britton Sear, Jesse Latourette and others, add texture to the films indoctrination program.
Every patient there responds in very different ways. Some trying to fall in line, others resisting at moments, still others keeping their own counsel and this seems truthful. There are some disturbing scenes showing the kids abused by counsellors, but there are other moments of surprising tenderness. The scene that touches your heart, is when Jared tells his father, "I don't want to pretend anymore," and he further adds that he will not change and does not expect his father to change too.
Overall, the film is neither too melodramatic nor sappy. It gives you a fair insight in what it set out for, but does not stay etched into your memory, much after you leave the theatres.
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