Boy Erased and the Loud Spectacle of Gay Trauma

Without a point of view about trauma or pain, Boy Erased ceases to be anything other than a spectacle of it.

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Boy Erased and the Loud Spectacle of Gay Trauma

If gay shame is deafening, how does gay, and queer, trauma sound? Something maybe like tinnitus: sometimes ignorable, but ultimately ever present.

In Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased—in which he stars, directing and adapting from Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name—gay trauma sounds like a combination of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ maudlin, overbearing score, or Troye Sivan’s anachronistic track “Revelation”: always there, yet strangely non-specific.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of a successful Baptist pastor (Russell Crowe) and a deferential Southern belle (Nicole Kidman); the film frames his experience at Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy program lead by Edgerton’s charmless fake therapist Victor Sykes, as a series of back-and-forths between Jared’s present and past. In this film, gay conversion therapy exercises are the weapons. Boy Erased takes SparkNotes Freud somewhat literally, forcing its lead to confront what could have made him the way he is, what experiences were most formative, what the magical “key” is to what turned Jared into the person he is now. From considering a family tree of sinners, to his own memories, to an excavation of possible same sex relations, Edgerton follows this line of rhetoric with fairly po-faced sincerity, albeit allowing just enough room for a “born this way” implication to the proceedings. A graphic rape scene between he and a college friend is both a gross (maybe necessary?) red herring and a source of self-loathing, as well as the impetus for Jared to come out to his conservative parents, which then itself becomes the reason why he is submitted to the program. (The details of this event, so I am told, as I have not read the memoir, have been changed from the book, making the scene in the film even more sinister.) And later, as if to alleviate that moment, or provide a sense of personal solace for Jared, an encounter with an artist (Théodore Pellerin) reminds him that real intimacy is possible. Even though it is just a memory.

Through these different kinds of scenes, the film’s palette never changes much. It’s burnt toast, butterless. It does not change when Jared is at home, or when Victor is tormenting other members of the group, and if it does, it slides to grey, giving the impression that warmth is not of interest to the film, that Boy Erased has reached for an icier mood. Similarly, directorial decisions pepper the film in a detached, artificial way. For all the horrid atrocities of abuse and manipulation that exist at the conversion therapy sessions, which are the tip of the iceberg, Edgerton’s not exacting enough a director to push the formal elements of his film and its tone—its cinematography, the acting style of its leads, its sound—to mean much of anything outside of the obvious. The invasiveness of its score and its high contrast shots gesture towards a secret desire to be a full-blown genre film, perhaps a horror movie, but Edgerton hedges his bets back towards mediocre melodrama, which undermines much of the story’s emotional underpinning.

At least with a genre framework, Boy Erased could have had a sense of perspective. It doesn’t. The film is only gay trauma porn. The scene that lingers the most is one in which a point must be proven to Cameron (Britton Sear), timid and overweight, and easily the black sheep of the group. Sykes stages a funeral, to send the message that if Cameron does not change, he will be sent to Hell. Sykes beats him with a Bible and then leads him to what amounts to dorms in the back of the church premises. It’s dramatic and flowy and there is no clear reason why it should be in the film, other than to convey the intended message of “isn’t this all so horrible?”

Well, yeah. But why? The film never really answers that essential question: What about trauma and abuse is so horrible? It can only come up with a stuttering, “W-well, it’s obvious that this is terrible, that no one should have to go through this.” With so much focus on the things around the film, offering an impression of that world (which doesn’t even represent a thorough understanding of its Evangelicalism) and the suffering that occurs at conversion therapy, Edgerton never really has insight about it, or about his main character, other than tragedy. There’s little interiority that can’t be provided by Hedges, who is good in the film; there’s little understanding of the machinations of the systems in place in this environment; there’s little investment into its own credo regarding masculinity (“Fake it till you make it,” a former drill sergeant says, and Sivan’s character Gary parrots back to Hedges); there’s no investigation into the ways in which masculinity is like social capital despite a handful of references (again, with no thoughtfulness) regarding the class context of the story; there’s little care put into the coping mechanisms that people use. What stands out is Boy Erased’s brash music, its mustache curling villain and Hedges’ attempt to hold together his paper-thin character under such distress.

Joel Edgerton is, for all intents and purposes, heterosexual, which is not a bad thing. There is a litany of queer films and gay films by straight directors (Ang Lee, Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Park Chan-wook) that serve as important contributions to the history of queer cinema, and I am personally of the opinion that artists can make work outside of their own experience very well. Boy Erased is just not one of those examples. It feels too much like that of an outsider looking into an experience, and not in a way that would somehow leaven the film or give it an emotional authenticity. Instead, there’s a confounding voyeuristic quality to it and an inability to access an subjectivity of any of its characters. The presence of Troye Sivan and Xavier Dolan exist like a cheap way to authenticate the film’s gayness.

If it sounds like I’m being glib, it’s only because Boy Erased is a well-intentioned but pretty glib movie. Suffering without artistic perspective is frustrating. This year’s other conversion therapy film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, directed by Desiree Akhavan and starring Chloë Grace Moretz, at least has a sense of humor about itself, in addition to having a keen understanding of the allure of those programs and the manipulative language that they use. Jennifer Ehle’s Dr. Lydia March, who is director of God’s Promise, the conversion therapy camp in Cameron Post, is charismatic, her power in her ability to read her opponent (the children in the camp) and anticipate their moves, which is precisely what makes her so repugnant and diabolical. But Edgerton’s Sykes moves in big, broad movements without the fundamental understanding of those movements or how they’re meant to lure and threaten, appeal and scare. Without a point of view about trauma or pain, Boy Erased ceases to be anything other than a spectacle of it. (Another aspect of spectacle, here in the guise of irony, is that an end title card reveals the faux-pastor Edgerton plays is living with his gay partner.)

Which then brings us to the tough question of queer trauma in film. It’s a somewhat broader, but no more answerable question than the question of self-loathing in art: Caught in the paradox of necessity, and redundancy, and regression, what do you do with it now? I love films about queer trauma more than the next person—I recently showed someone a double feature of Under the Skin and Let the Right One In on a date, and was dumped afterward—and while I’m resistant to what I perceive as blandified assimilationist narratives like Love, Simon and their obsession with “normalcy” without ever interrogating what “normal” is, or what it looks like through various lenses and experiences, I don’t entirely disagree with the premise that queer cinema needs more happy endings —or, for me, fewer films obsessed with some unidimensional idea of trauma. Too many queer films about trauma do not consider not what it looks like, how it feels, how it’s amorphous and shapeshifting, suffocating, or how it tinges worldviews and intimacy and sex and politics and waking up in the morning. They focus on just the suffering part. That’s what sticks out in them.

“What do you do with queer trauma in film?” is a dicey question because it sends you back to ask what makes stories about queer people unique, what makes queer culture interesting and separable from other subcultures. How can you rescue the term “trauma,” and how do you rescue those narratives? The reality is—unless someone is going out of their way to depict a period of time where certain words, terms, labels and identities didn’t technically have names, but the actions of certain people and the culture that was created could be codified and described by contemporary language retroactively—what makes any culture that is Other in a normative society unique is its very existence outside of it, is the way it has been borne of, constructed from and built by trauma, oppression and separation. To create narratives that do not acknowledge the inescapable fact that difference is what makes queer people and the artifacts, art and traditions they have what they are, is to either buy into a paradigm of straightness and a normativity in art and society that already has existed, or to force artists to create an entirely new paradigm of how to describe difference apart from trauma. I don’t know if that can be done.

Basically, the trauma produced from both carefully designed and wildly unruly oppression and marginalization have given queer people their history while also giving them the tools to create queerness as culture, sensibility, story, art and being. Problems surface when the artists telling those stories cannot see beyond the exterior of suffering without creating a critical relationship between the audience and memory, or tactility, or history, or desire, or capital, or race, or performance. The story then feels facile; intentions fall short. Sometimes intention is not enough—especially when the trauma of homophobia swirls independent of the walls of the camp, an idea the film is tacit to admit.

Boy Erased in particular, like the memoir on which it is based, is supposed to function like advocacy. There’s nothing wrong with that. The debate between whether art should just be aesthetics or should be a work of advocacy is one for another time. Queer culture inextricably links to trauma, and it matters when artists and activists create work that challenges simple narratives of suffering and oppression, critiques larger systems that create it or gives humanity to those who suffer. But for that art to be valuable, it needs point of view and nuance.

What is this movie advocating other than that (queer) suffering is bad? Conversion therapy is bad? Why does it feel like so many movies about gay trauma have trouble interrogating and unearthing the badness through lenses beyond the obvious? That something can function as advocacy, to make people more aware of a certain issue, is fine, good. But, for me, it is not enough.

Over dinner with a friend recently, I told him I was writing this piece and the trouble I was having. It’s a big, big question, and one has no satisfying answer. Without endless referents to the work of trauma studies scholars and a melange of other artistic texts, how could I begin to explore the question? I could certainly point to Cameron Post, as I have, and films like Moonlight, or Beach Rats, or BPM, or any others, but regardless of the number of references I made, and however thoroughly I unpacked their baggage to lay out on the table, the question would loom. My friend suggested that the key to telling stories of queer trauma is finding the specific humanity of that story, because it’s in that tactile notion of personhood and identity that you can begin to understand queer trauma beyond mere suffering. The aforementioned have characters, people, whose lives are rendered with warm blood, with desire, with an intimation of autonomy. You have to keep on living through the noise.

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