Film About “Gay-Conversion” Therapy Pits the LGBTQ Community Against Evangelicals. It Might Just Lead to a Much Needed Conversation.
DIRECTED BY JOEL EDGERTON/2018
Note: “Reel Theology” is a special section devoted to editorial interpretations of various movies. The readings you may find here might very be unintended on behalf of the filmmaker, and in many cases are subjective to the individual writer’s point of view. You may find yourself not agreeing, but we hope you will find yourself engaged. This article is also meant for those who have seen the film, and thus this is considered a spoiler warning for those who haven’t seen it, as we will be discussing potential details of the film that will be considered spoilers.
For a spoiler-free review of the film Boy Erased, by Jim Tudor, click here.
Boy Erased feels like the start of a conversation. A much needed conversation.
Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased, the film stars Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe, and depicts the experiences of Jared Eamons (Hedges) as he attends a gay-conversion therapy program at the urging of his parents. As his father Marshall (Crowe) is a southern baptist preacher in Arkansas, and a prominent member of their community, the fact that his only son might be gay goes against everything he preaches about each week, and the scripture he holds so dear. His wife Nancy (Kidman), is the supportive wife and mother, who is trying to hold the tension of supporting her husband, while continuing to love her son.
One thing that I appreciated about the film, and I cannot speak to how this is handled in the memoir it is based on as I have not yet read it, is that it doesn’t seek to minimize those who hold firm to scripture just to support its pro-LGBTQ message. It is obvious that Garrard Conley, and in the film the character of Jared Eamons, came to disagree with his father’s position on homosexuality, but this film doesn’t seek to undermine the well-intentioned beliefs of those who believe scripture forbids the practice of homosexual sex, focusing instead on those who insincerely preyed on the larger church community with promises that “gays” could be cured of their same sex-attraction, much like a drug-addicted individual could be sobered up and cured of their desire for addictive substances. These programs have been proven to be complete failures, most notably the national group Exodus, whose leader was discovered to have continued to live as a homosexual despite claims to the contrary.
Here, director and actor Joel Edgerton plays Victor Sykes who serves as the leader of such a group called “Love in Action”, though its methods are anything but. Accompanying Sykes in helping these program attendees is Brandon (played perfectly by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), a former gay man who was “converted” back into the straight man God wants him to be. At first, the program of “Love in Action” seems harmless, thought it is fraught with red flags. As Jared gets further into the program, however, we slowly see the damage that is being caused by the program’s methods, and its dangerous underlying philosophy. (Note: Exodus International North America was born from several ministries, including one actually called “Love in Action”).
Some reviews have spoken about the humanity given by Edgerton in his screenplay towards all sides of this issue, as a negative of this film. I agree that such humanity helps a film like Boy Erased be consumed by a much bigger audience, especially those who are not in the LGBTQ community, but who might be willing to soften their position after seeing this film. I however, do not believe that it should be viewed as a negative as it truly opens up a needed line of communication on this issue.
Hedges, as Jarod Eamons, depicts the all-American kid that so many parents would be lucky to have. The fact that he reveals he is gay is the only thing that changes in his parents perception of him, and the film asks the question if that is a deal-breaker for those watching the film. For many, it would be.
The only sexual experience we witness of Jarod in the film is one of a rape by a fellow male college friend of his. This is an important scene, as many suggest that most people “turn gay” after such an example of sexual abuse, and not because they are in fact attracted to the same sex. Boy Erased clearly demonstrates that Jarod hates this experience in the same way every victim of rape does, and that we the audience should. It is this experience that serves as the means to exposing his attraction to males to his parents, after the one who rapes him lies, and that puts him on the path towards “Love in Action”, but the sexual assault and rape is shown to be a completely separate experience from the larger truth of his same-sex attraction. It is an important point to distinguish as we see Jarod’s father take longer to differentiate between the two.
Jarod’s father could have easily been written to be a “bad guy”, along with those at “Love in Action”, but Edgerton humanely, and rightly, refrains from demonizing Jarod’s father for his differing beliefs, and instead puts the blame on how a program like “Love in Action” seeks to run their program, no matter how many lives it manipulates and hurts. Pastor Marshall Eamons is played well by Crowe, who provides the depth of a man who passionately loves his son, while trying to stay true to his deepest convictions. The mother, Nancy, played by Kidman in what may be an Oscar-nominated performance, is representative of a bridge between her husband and son. This bridge character represents, I believe, a place where many Americans of faith truly are, and why this film is so important to starting a much needed conversation.
As more and more pro-LGBTQ films, television shows, and legislation continue to advance in culture, there has largely formed a very clear line of demarcation between to polarizing sides. On one side are those who champion all things LGBTQ, castigating anyone who does not no matter the reason. On the other side are those who feel that they cannot violate their beliefs, largely based on the scripture of the Bible, and therefore cannot in any way, shape, or form, support anything they see as being pro-LGBTQ. This is how Jarod and Marshall’s relationship is set up once Jared lets his father know that he is gay, and they initially represent the two extreme polar opposite sides of the culture war.
This divide has also been the traditional way that both sides have sought to demonize the other side. One side says that those who support LGBTQ individuals, or political agendas, are nothing but pagan liberals who are inviting the wrath of God on our country. The other side says that those who hold to any traditional view of scripture, or morality on the issue are closed-minded bigots who simply hate everyone that disagrees with them. Needless to say, those individuals who are in these two camps are firmly entrenched, and I don’t expect this film to make any headway with those who take an “all or nothing” view on either side. But for those who are more like Nancy, which is where I believe most people of faith truly are, there is a third way and middle ground that serves to provide a ray of hope that could bridge both sides of this argument.
Nancy is a woman who clearly states that she believes what she believes as it relates to the scripture, but who also clearly loves, and will continue to love, her son. Neither side will be able to claim the moral high ground if they only stay locked into their “Jarod” and” Marshall”-like positions. But imagine if we lived in a world more like Nancy? To the film’s credit, the narrative arcs for both Jarod and Marshall also show what could be possible in the end if they take that third way that Nancy demonstrates. (Note: Jarod is much more respectful of his parent’s beliefs throughout the film to a fault, but we are addressing his firm stance he takes once he has summoned the courage to declare to his parents his orientation no matter how they react). Here is what that might look like:
For those who are pro-LGBTQ, there is much to appreciate in Jared’s approach. He starts off the film clearly “in the closet”, living up to his parent’s expectations, while lying to himself. Being the all-star basketball star and even dating the “pretty girl” of his high school and church is a front to himself and for his parents as he fits their ideal notion of the all-American, God-fearing teenage boy. In college, he begins to engage what he knows to be true about his sexual orientation, even after suffering a horrific rape. As he begins to stand up for what he is now confident to be true about his homosexuality, he puts the ball in his parents court on how they will respond. What is an ideal third-way to handle his very set pro-LGBTQ position is how Jared shares his love for his Dad in the end, and then how he goes and lives his life according to his beliefs. His only requirement, that he gives his father, is not that he agree with him, but that he love him even if he disagrees with him. He then allows for his father to do so in a way whereby he still holds to his beliefs but still is able to have a relationship with Jarod. He doesn’t ask for any actions that would violate Marshall’s deep convictions, but only actions that allows for his son to equally hold to his.
Many who support Marshall’s anti-LGBTQ position might see these two things as incompatible, and mutually exclusive. How can you disagree from a scriptural position and still love the individual? How can you take actions that allow for someone else to hold to convictions you disagree with without compromising yours? The fact that Russell Crowe is able to create a moment where he expresses his deepest held beliefs, but also demonstrates a desire to love his son, and reaffirm that love is a great moment. This love is symbolized by his gifting his son a pen that he has used to write his most passionate sermons, which are born out of and that express his deepest convictions. He challenges his son to use it now to write what he was passionate about as a journalist (which resulted in the memoir that this film was based on) and as a result demonstrates true “love in action”. It never brought Crowe’s character to a place where he abandoned his beliefs, but it allowed him a place that was more in line with the Jesus he served, where he loved the individual truly. He clearly wasn’t going to agree with everything his son would write, but it was an empowering moment that acknowledged his son’s gift of writing and a desire to see him succeed in life.
Would Jesus continue to have fellowship and community with those whom his society, especially the religious of his day, viewed as the outcasts and “sinners”? Absolutely. This was especially scandalous as Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, a teacher of the sacred scriptures of Torah. Marshall, as a preacher, is in a similar position, teaching a congregation the sacred scriptures. Would Jesus break the commandments of Torah that he upheld as an extremely devout Jew? No. Yet, Jesus lived in this tension, never breaking a single command of Torah and yet still demonstrating love and grace. He continued to love everyone, trusting that any change that needed to be had in a person’s life would be a personal decision by that individual as they responded to God’s love that was offered by Christ through the actions he demonstrated to everyone he met. This is not the love we see from Marshall initially, and it is certainly not the love experienced by Jarod from those at “Love in Action”. It is, however, the place of love that we see later from his Father as the two seek to repair the hurt that Jarod has felt. But love requires people to live in the tension of loving those we see as “the other side” while still holding to our deep convictions.
This is the third way, the bridge path. This is the way expressed in the film through the character of Nancy as she is the first to rush to her son’s side, no matter the consequences from her faith community. She sees what “Love in Action” is as an organization, and the harm they are causing her son in the name of her faith. She is the one who risks being labeled like Jesus was for crossing over from the religious community she is a part of so that she can have fellowship and community with those they label as the “outcast”, namely her son. It is her example that leads her husband to begin to see this third way as a viable way to love his son, even in the face of his son’s opposing view of scripture from his own on the issue of homosexuality.
Much like Mary Magdalene, another outcast, who was chosen to be the first to bring the message of Christ’s resurrection to his disciples, Nancy is the one who first brings the message to her husband of how to live out the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in love towards Jarod. Marshall, who as a pastor, claims to represent Christ the best as a pastor and “man of God”, but it is actually she who does this most in word, but more importantly, in deed. She is the one who demonstrates true “love in action”.
Boy Erased might in many ways be a “safe” film that will be panned by those who are both adamantly pro and anti-LGBTQ, albeit for different reasons. I, however, believe it serves as a bridge towards a needed conversation between two opposing sides that might truly allow them to find a middle ground that could provide some much needed healing. Such a conversation is needed so that both sides of this issue can begin to live and function together in our shared community here in America, or wherever one might live, where such division continues to exist.
Like the faulty “gay-conversion” premise that is targeted in the film, neither side needs to convert the other to its own position. It wouldn’t work. Instead, both sides need to find a way to go and live according their beliefs, and extend enough love and grace towards the other side that humanizes and values each other truly. This can be done by both sides without compromising either’s deeply held convictions. Something tells me that this approach would truly demonstrate “love in action”.