Boy Erased is a film at the center of several Venn diagram bubbles. The first is that of Biopic, as it is based off of writer Gerrard Conley’s memoir of the same name. The character of Jared Eamons, portrayed by Lucas Hedges, is Conley’s surrogate, who is outted as gay to his parents by his college friend, Henry (Joe Alwyn). Jared and Henry are freshman who have a strongly developed sexual tension, until Henry rapes Jared, then confesses he’d also raped a kid in his church. Henry contacts Jared’s parents as a preemptive measure, to scare Jared into keeping silent about what happened.
The outing comes with additional implications, because Jared and his parents are Evangelical Christians, which creates the second bubble. Upon Jared’s admission that he thinks he’s gay, his parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) enroll him in a gay conversion program called Love in Action. The program operates with very strict rules, including supervised uses of the bathroom, no phones, and no writing or reading, other than the materials provided. Jared’s classmates are mostly young adults or teenagers, and mostly male, so the program is tailored to enforce gender roles and stereotypes for young men. They’re taught to gesticulate in certain ways that read more masculine (fingers facing front when putting hands on hips, sturdy handshakes), and are goaded to feel anger rather than sadness, since the former is more masculine.
Though Jared’s story is an atypical one and doesn’t necessarily aim to be a catch-all tale of conversion therapy, the subject matter alone creates the third bubble of Harrowing Journey. His story is baseline humiliating, as this deeply personal aspect of one’s life becomes a community affair. He’s made to consider his sexuality as first a “problem,” and then as a “sin.” The tragedy in Jared is his how hard he’s trying to make it work. He wants so badly to live up to his parents’ and religious community’s expectation of young manhood. He believes so strongly that his faith will be what saves him. Jared is just a Good Kid. His Christian morality (the good, Jesus-like parts) are deeply ingrained, and he treats people with dignity and empathy.
The trouble of Boy Erasedis that it leaned too hard into the intersection of Harrowing Journey and Christianity, not through Jared but through his parents, of which there is little more than a self-induced persecution complex. The film has an unexpectedly soft view of religion, which is difficult to not be cynical about, given the fear and anguish that religion (specifically this kind of religion) causes. There is a lot of well-meaning ignorance floating around this story, but ignorance is only well-meaning if it does more good than harm.
Jared gets out from under the thumb of conversion therapy with the help of his unexpectedly tolerant mother and his own impressive capacity for critical thinking, but other kids are not so lucky. One is clearly being regularly beaten by his father, another kills himself after his family is forced (and fully willing) to beat him with a Bible. Boy Erasedis asking too much of its audience: it wants to give credit to the ignorant while creating empathy for those who torture their children physically, emotionally, morally, and otherwise.
After Jared leaves Love in Action, the film jumps forward four years, and shows him living in New York with a bevy of supportive friends and some published writing. In what appears to be a rare moment of communication with his still-religious father, Jared tells him that he’s the one who needs to change, not the other way around. If Boy Erasedwere interested in Jared’s journey and not the redemption of the ignorant, it would have shown how he found and rebuilt himself over four years, not his reluctant father ignoring his son’s pleas.
Boy Erased is not a bad movie in its execution, but there’s something distasteful in its loyalty to the world that created its very subject matter. It’s not a cautionary tale more than a polite imploration of empathy to the religious right, who would likely not see this movie anyway. It exists in the bubble it created for itself.