In his landmark study, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Siegfried Kracauer put forth the theory that cinema is a seismograph for its time, a mass media indicator of the cultural subconscious. In other words: Cinema knows something we don’t.
So, what does cinema know about conversion therapy? Using Kracauer’s theory, the release of The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased—along with the podcast produced in conjunction with the latter, UnErased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America—all in 2018, indicates that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.
Conversion therapy, the scientifically debunked practice of converting a person’s sexuality through behavioral conditioning and aversion therapy, has plagued the LGBTQ community since the early 20th century.
According to a report from The Williams Institute of the University of California Los Angeles School of Law in January 2018, 698,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. have received some form of conversion therapy, a practice that was still legal in all but nine states and the District of Columbia as of 2018. Most common are camps and facilities sponsored by religious organizations, the kind on display in both Miseducation and Boy Erased.
Miseducation and Boy Erased have many similarities. Both are set in the recent past, and both infer the feeling and tone of a memoir—specifically true of Boy Erased, which is based on Garrand Conley’s 2016 book of the same name. Both protagonists are sent to camps after they are discovered having same-sex attractions. Both find that no past trauma led them to this point. And both have their coming-of-age/coming-out story at these camps.
Where these two differ is the presence of the parents, non-existent in Miseducation while part and parcel of Boy Erased. Jared (Lucas Hedges) is blessed with two loving parents, Nancy (Nicole Kidman, excellent as always) and Marshall (Russell Crowe), if not slightly misguided. Marshall, a Baptist pastor, is not a tyrant, but he follows strict black-and-white rules simply because they’re the rules now, and they’ve always been the rules. His struggle—played exceedingly well by Crowe—shows that when one suddenly loses their conviction, they can easily be led astray.
Not true for Nancy, who learns to find her voice alongside her son. Based on how readily Nancy goes along with Marshall’s initial plan, it isn’t a stretch to assume Nancy has always been going along with Marshall’s plan. But now, her son’s well-being is in jeopardy, and Nancy knows that if she’s ever going to find her voice, the time is now.
Though the bulk of Boy Erased’s 114-minute runtime takes place at the camp, under the strict leadership of Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay and directs), the best scenes in Boy Erased revolve around the home. No child is an island, but neither are the parents. If there is a seismograph at the heart of Boy Erased, let it be this: The generations will have to work in harmony if we are to escape mutual destruction.
Boy Erased (2018)
Written and directed by Joel Edgerton
Based on the memoirs of Garrard Conley
Produced by Joel Edgerton, Steve Golin, Kerry Kohansky-Roberts
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton
Focus Features, Rated R, Running time 115 minutes, Premiered Sept. 1, 2015 at the Telluride Film Festival.