In “But How Gay Is It?”, we seek to answer the biggest questions you have about a new movie release in theaters now — including, most crucially, the titular question. Does the movie have any queer characters? Are there stories involving same-sex lovers? Which gay icons star in the film? We’re bringing you all that and more.
What is Boy Erased? Adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, Joel Edgerton’s film is the second major conversion therapy movie of the year. This one follows Jared (a fictionalized Conley), a college student, made to go through conversion therapy by his Southern Baptist parents, Nancy and Marshall. Though he at first puts on a brave face for the therapy, watching the horrors enacted by the program’s administrators, including head “therapist” Victor’s abuse of one program participant, radicalizes him. He escapes, and winds up writing several articles — even talking about a book — about his experience.
But Boy Erased is only somewhat interested in the details of Jared’s therapy. Edgerton invests most in Jared’s relationship with Nancy and Marshall, and what both motivates their actions and eventually grows to horrify them about what they put their son through.
Who’s in it? Lucas Hedges, so compelling in both last year’s Lady Bird and in his Oscar-nominated turn in Manchester by the Sea, plays Jared. Hedges imbues his gay characters in particular with such softness that I rarely see in American films. Compare Jared and Danny from Lady Bird to some of his contemporaries playing gay, and you’ll see the difference; Hedges leads with heart, eschewing any performance of toughness. (Read his description of his own sexuality — what one might lazily call “heteroflexible” but he describes in far more earnest and searching ways — and his heart-first performances make more sense.)
I’m a massive fan of Hedges, and am admittedly a tad disappointed that he seems to be getting overshadowed by his Lady Bird co-star Timothée Chalamet. Ideally, both would thrive; in reality, both will likely be up for several of the same roles. Boy Erased is just another example of why Hedges should be allowed in that spotlight.
Nicole Kidman plays Nancy, while Russell Crowe plays Marshall and Edgerton himself plays Victor. Those ensemble members (plus Troye Sivan as one of Jared’s fellow therapy-goers) give this American story a remarkably Australian sheen.
Why should I see it? For the performances most of all. Kidman and Hedges are both great; Crowe is excellent, turning in one of the best performances of his career. Their sections of the film are compelling, to the point where I actively wanted the oft-overly broad therapy scenes to end just to get back to learning about them. Had Boy Erased been all about the periods before and after Jared’s conversion therapy, I think it would have been a superior film. Admittedly, a conversion therapy movie not about conversion therapy feels counterintuitive, but the fairly formulaic Boy Erased could’ve used some more out-of-the-box thinking.
But how gay is it? So, as I’ve been hinting, Boy Erased is not very gay. It’s laser-focused on Jared’s parents, and only really engages with Jared’s sexuality through the lens of conversion therapy. It’s also deeply un-queer in approach, just as standard a memoir adaptation as you can imagine. I liked Boy Erased more than I expected I would, but I can’t defend it on this point.
How does this compare to The Miseducation of Cameron Post? Here’s how I’d put it: Cameron Post is the superior movie about conversion therapy. Boy Erased is the superior movie about the kinds of people who would send their child to conversion therapy.
Do we need movies like this? Honestly? I’m split. I can see the value of something like Boy Erased, as it makes a strong argument that parents need to hear. On the other hand, I’m very uninterested in having more straight people direct stories about queer people. Because ultimately, as we do here, we get films that are more interested in the straight people surrounding a gay person than in the actual gay person.
I guess my take is this: Boy Erased is very effective at what it does. I’m glad it exists. I just don’t want more Boy Eraseds — movies for straight people about queer people — than I do movies for queer people, by queer people.
Boy Erased is in theaters now.