(Warning: This review is more spoiler-y than usual, which was necessary for substantive discussion.)
To judge by The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased, both released this year, films about conversion therapy tell essential stories, even if they don’t make for great art.
These narratives are essential, because as the postscript to Boy Erased informs us, over 700,000 Americans have been traumatized by some form of conversion therapy. A “therapy” condemned by all the relevant professional organizations, it’s still legal to inflict it upon minors in 36 states. Not mentioned in the postscript is the frightening reality that Mike Pence, the man one heartbeat (or one jail sentence) away from being the most powerful man in the world, supports this harmful practice.
Neither film makes for timeless art, however. Judging from Cameron Post and Boy Erased, conversion therapy movies must follow similar, halfway predictable plotlines and have similar styles. The protagonist from a fundamentalist household must be caught in the sin of “same sex attraction” and ordered to a treatment program. The program will involve a maladroit cooption of the tools of Alcoholics’ Anonymous (the moral inventory) and family therapy (the genogram).
The peers in the program will be a sea of morose faces, but vary in individual responses, from drinking the Kool-Aid to cynical lip service. There will be suicide and escape attempts, and at some point, the program leaders will be exposed as hapless and credential-less. Stylistically, the overall tone will be dour, the palette dingy and shadowy.
To be fair, I think many of these elements are inevitable. Unless you’re Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park and the musical The Book of Mormon, it’s hard to play for chuckles the toxicity of religious fundamentalism.
And by all reliable accounts, conversion therapy programs are miniature totalitarian states. Bodies and belongings are searched and confiscated, and thoughts are routinely probed and brought out for criticism. You even have totalitarian doublespeak, with the language of love and compassion wielded for self-hatred and psychological manipulation. Also, suicide (attempted or completed) is a possible outcome of this perversion of psychotherapy.
Of the two, Boy Erased is the better film. I suspect it helps that its source material is an actual autobiography, rather than a speculative novel. (Garrard Conley’s book made my “Best Books of 2016” list, and further alchemizing his horrible experience into something useful, he’s since written numerous articles on conversion therapy.)
In the film version, Conley is renamed Jared Eamons, but the details from the book remain largely in place, best I can recall. The church settings and the Christianese spoken in the Eamons’ household ring with authenticity. Eamons’ family is devout, his father Marshall an Arkansas church pastor. Jared and his mother Nancy can be counted upon to be sitting in the front pews every Sunday.
Following a campus assault (nightmarish in the book, comparably distressing on screen), Jared is outed by a college classmate to his parents. Marshall gives Jared the ultimatum of going to nearby Memphis’ Love in Action conversion therapy program, or being ejected from their home, setting the stage for the main action of the film.
Boy Erased also improves on Cameron Post with its casting and acting. Lucas Hedges, who deservedly received a 2016 Oscar nod for his tragicomic performance in Manchester by the Sea, has a far wider emotional range than Cameron Post’s Chloë Grace Moretz. For most of Boy Erased, Hedges wears his stress and shame like a second suit of clothes, his shoulders hunched as he scarcely makes eye contact.
Joel Edgerton, who additionally directed and wrote the script, confidently inhabits the role of Victor Sykes, the leader of Love in Action. Better still are Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Jared’s parents. They could’ve been one-dimensional villains in a lesser story, but each possesses vulnerability and warmth that resides in tension with their unyielding dogma.
And this points to the final way in which Boy Erased is the superior film. The Miseducation of Cameron Post did a fine job of showing us the toxicity of conversion therapy for the individual mind, encapsulated in its lacerating rhetorical question, “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?”
Boy Erased does this, too, but takes its critique one step further, showing how conversion therapy rips apart families. Both book and film make it clear that Marshall and Nancy love their son, yet the father in particular is willing to jettison his affection because of his son’s sexual orientation. I suspect the manner in which the film resolves this tension will be either cathartic or upsetting for many LGBT viewers, depending on their own family dynamics.
I concluded my review of Cameron Post by arguing that self-loathing is inherent to Christian doctrine, whether or not you’re a member of the LGBT community. In the same vein, Boy Erased reminds me that Christianity is just as detrimental to families. A proclivity for exclusion and division, conveniently projected onto the Other as persecution, was there from the beginning: one Gospel writer even has Jesus saying that a man’s enemies will be those of his own household (Matthew 10:36).
Like myself, I’m sure many of my readers could share personal experiences of family rejection when they walked away from religious dogma or practice. As in Boy Erased, the touted unconditional love of Christianity turns conditional if you step outside of tribal conformity, whether through openness about sexual orientation or integrity in disbelief.
3.5 out of 5 stars