Boy Erased isn't really for queer people — but we can use it to help erase some homophobia
Joel Egerton's gay conversion therapy drama is more for the people we can't quite call our allies (yet)
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
The privilege and responsibility of the queer experience has consistently been handed over to straight (male) filmmakers ever since the American film industry figured out it could be profitable. The genesis of this arguably dates back to 1993, when TriStar decided the best person to direct Philadelphia — the first Hollywood film to tackle AIDS — was Jonathan Demme: a straight man who had just directed The Silence of the Lambs, a film heavily criticized by LGBTQ activists for its homophobia and transphobia.
Philadelphia went on to win Tom Hanks an Oscar and gross over $200 million worldwide, and made it clear that LGBTQ stories could be watered down for the mainstream, providing straight people Oscars and studios profits in the process. While there have been exceptions like Boys Don't Cry, Brokeback Mountain and Milk — two of which were directed by queer folks and all of which are, in my opinion, fantastic films — for the most part this hasn't worked out so well. Some of my least favourite experiences at recent Toronto International Film Festivals has been having to sit through films like Dallas Buyers Club, The Imitation Game and The Danish Girl then having to immediately run to a crowded Starbucks to angrily crank out an essay on my laptop about how problematic all of those films are in terms of their LGBTQ representation (though they all still made their way to Oscar night anyway).
All of this is why I was a little weary — and wary — walking into Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased, which had its premiere Tuesday night at TIFF. Despite some intriguing elements (mainly the book it's based on, which I loved, and the casting of out performers like Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan and Cherry Jones in supporting roles), when I first heard of the film's existence, my primary thought was: why do all these straight Australians want to make a movie about gay conversion therapy in America's bible belt? It seemed like a bizarre choice for Edgerton, an actor whose sole previous directorial credit was the 2015 horror film The Gift. I just kept trying to picture Edgerton (though really his character from Animal Kingdom) going into a meeting and being asked what he wanted to do next and him saying something like: "I really want to adapt this book about gay conversion therapy, and I want my mates Nic Kidman and Rus Crowe to be in it."
Turns out I don't often give straight people enough credit. Because it really seems like the reason all these Australians wanted to make Boy Erased is pretty simple: they think gay conversion therapy is horribly wrong, and they want to show people who aren't so enlightened why.
Adapted from Garrard Conley's memoir Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family, the film opens as the titular boy (here named Jared Eamons, and played by Lucas Hedges) entering a program at Refuge, which offers church-supported "therapy" predicated on the idea that homosexuality is a curable affliction brought on by our family's histories of "sin." This has all been arranged by his loving but intensely religious (his father is a Baptist minister) parents, played by Kidman and Crowe, though Jared himself is game for the experience and believes it could help him.
From there, Boy Erased goes back and forth between two narratives: flashing back to the events that led Jared to tell his parents he thinks be might be gay — including a horrifying sexual experience with his college best friend — and forward through his experience at Refuge, which is overseen by a grossly unqualified "spiritual leader" played by Edgerton himself, and where Dolan and Sivan pop up as his fellow inmates. Ultimately, Jared figures out what I'd hope pretty much everyone in the Toronto theatre I saw Boy Erased were already well aware of: programs like Refuge are monstrosities that need to be banned because there's obviously nothing wrong with being gay.
The thing is, of course, that there are still a lot of people who do not understand that. In Canada, gay conversion therapy is only banned in two provinces (Ontario and Manitoba) and one city (Vancouver). An American report suggests in that country some 20,000 LGBTQ youths currently between the ages of 13 and 17 will be subjected to conversion therapy from a licensed health cared professional before they turn 18. Another 57,000 will receive that therapy from a "religious or spiritual advisor" like Edgerton plays in Boy Erased. This is, clearly, appalling.
Boy Erased takes a careful approach that seems very much geared toward an audience that doesn't quite understand why gay conversion therapy is so deeply harmful. Save for the scene where Jared is assaulted by his college friend, there's no sex in the film, or any well-developed relationships between Jared and other queer men. And Edgerton makes sure the audience empathizes with all sides, particularly Kidman and Crowe as they try to come to terms with their own homophobia (for the most part successfully). It feels very much like a cinematic PSA, and it's likely most queer folks are going to walk out of the theatre feeling like this movie wasn't made for them.
And for once, that's okay. We already have our own gay conversion films, one of which — The Miseducation of Cameron Post — is still in theatres (and it's pretty good, though I'd still recommend the classic 1999 film But I'm a Cheerleader first). While titles like Dallas Buyers Club and The Imitation Game were problematic because of how their straight directors and screenwriters mismanaged LGBTQ characters and themes, Boy Erased at least seems to be coming from the place of a concerned ally. Edgerton clearly wants this film to elicit change. The only question is: how is he ever going to get the people whose minds it could change to see it?
The people that are going to line up for Boy Erased when it's released this November are very likely not going to walk into it questioning whether being gay is a sin. They're probably going to walk into it hoping to see Lucas Hedges have sex with Troye Sivan or Xavier Dolan. But instead they'll leave feeling disappointed, and maybe a little oddly empathetic toward a Baptist minister who sends his son to pray the gay away and probably voted for Donald Trump.
All that being said, I do think there's an opportunity here — we might just have to be creative about it. Instead of being annoyed that Boy Erased isn't our film, let's embrace what it could do and help Edgerton get the audience his film is catering toward. There's probably someone in your life that fits that bill, or perhaps someone a parent knows or a friend knows. Let's get this movie in front of them, even if that means telling them they're going to see a movie about, I don't know, a boy who can erase people with his mind or something. And if they still come out of it thinking gay conversion therapy is a legitimate option, well, then they're probably just lost causes. But at least we — and our friends Joel Edgerton, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe — tried.