Pluggedin Movie Review
"I think about men. I don’t know why. And I’m so sorry."
For Jared Eamons, the 18-year-old son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas, these are painful words to speak, a heartbreaking confession to make. For his parents, Marshall and Nancy Eamons, they’re painful words to hear, too, a heartbreaking confession to receive.
Jared’s known for a while. But it’s only after he’s sexually assaulted during his freshman year of college that Jared’s secret comes to light. A secret, his father says, that must be dealt with.
"We do not see a way that you can live under this roof," Marshall says, "if you’re going to fundamentally go against the grain of our beliefs, [against] God Himself. In your heart, do you want to change?"
A pause precedes Jared’s answer: "Yes. I want to change."
So Nancy drives her son to a "Christian" program supposedly designed to help him relinquish his same-sex attraction. It’s called Love in Action, a program sometimes labeled "conversion therapy."
Love in Action is supposed to be therapeutic. But with each spiritually and emotionally abusive day that Jared and a dozen or so other adolescents endure, it feels more like a prison.
Or worse, a cult.
It’s not long before Jared realises that maybe he doesn’t want to change after all. Instead, he just wants out.
But the tyrannical legalist leading the program, a man named Victor Sykes, isn’t about to let Jared go.
Boy Erased is an agonising story. In it, a teen tries to reconcile his childhood faith with a growing same-sex attraction that he can no longer deny. It’s a terrible tension, and the movie poignantly depicts the soul-wrenching struggle Jared faces as he tries to reconcile these warring desires, beliefs and relationships.
Jared’s parents love him deeply, though in different ways. Nancy begins to realise just how damaging the program is for Jared (and, we see, for others); when he asks for her help, she shows up like a fierce mama bear. "A mother knows when something isn’t right," she says. (As for his father’s conflicted response, we’ll talk more about that throughout the review.)
Boy Erased depicts a harsh, legalistic and demeaning approach toward shaming participants into relinquishing their same-sex attraction. Sykes and a handful of others on staff repeatedly employ God talk to bully teens into overcoming their homosexual feelings. He says of the roots of same-sex attraction, "You cannot be born a homosexual. … It’s behavioural. It’s a choice."
Sometimes, we hear echoes of truth in the program. Sykes says that "sexual sin" is an attempt "to fill a God-shaped void in one’s life." Elsewhere we hear, "Jesus puts us back together." We also see Jared’s parents sincerely struggling with how to trust God with their son’s same-sex attraction, something they initially see as being a sin and outside God’s design. (Nancy’s convictions on this issue perhaps shift as the movie progresses.)
But the program’s strategy for dealing with that sin isn’t to promote a loving relationship with God. Instead, the focus is upon behaviour modification, with a ruthless emphasis on performance and willingness to change. We must "bring ourselves back to God," Sykes said. A few minutes later he adds, "We got to learn for ourselves where our behaviour comes from, and cut it out."
And "cutting it out" takes some deeply traumatising and shaming turns for Jared and other participants.
They’re forced to take a detailed "moral inventory," in which they write down all of their sexual sins. Afterward, each participant is compelled to confess those sins to the group; we hear several such confessions in detail. It’s an extremely degrading—and creepily voyeuristic—experience. One young man confesses to "sodomy," and says, "I know in my heart I have forsaken Jesus for Satan." (Later, however, he tells Jared that he’s just playing along in order to get out of the program.) Sykes tells one confessor, "’Fess up to what God already sees." Later he tells Jared, "Listen, don’t even try lying to God, Jared. He already sees."
Every aspect of participants’ lives is controlled while they’re in the program: what they do, what they can say, who they can talk to. They even have to have someone in the bathroom with them to make sure they don’t masturbate.
When one participant apparently wants to leave Love in Action, the program leaders stage a mock funeral service for him, complete with a casket. It’s apparently meant to communicate that choosing to leave equals choosing death. The same young man is then beaten with Bibles by his family in something akin to an exorcism. When Jared tries to encourage the dejected teen, he’s warned by another participant that he’ll get in trouble for doing so. Sykes tells the boy, whose name is Cameron, "You’re going to wish you hadn’t been born, because God will not love you the way you are right now, unless you really want to change." God’s love, then, is taught to be completely conditional on our performance.
Elsewhere, a pastor friend of Marshall’s prays for Jared, asking God to "make him pure and to see the errors of his way, that he see the path of faith." In another scene, someone prays, "Jesus, fill him with wisdom."
Jared has an encounter with a gay youth named Xavier (outside the program), who says he still believes in God. Jared compares himself to Job. He says he feels like "God and Satan made a bet about me, and that one day God will let me in on the experiment." Xavier says that he believes "God is in us, not hiding and watching." Xavier invites Jared to stay the night with him, saying, "I’ll prove that God won’t strike you down." (The two cuddle in bed together, but it’s implied they go no further.)
After Nancy pulls Jared from the program, we watch as both she and Marshall try to come to terms with Jared’s homosexuality. She tells her son, "I love God. God loves me. And I love my son. It’s that simple. But for your father, it’s a little more complicated. I wish it wasn’t. But it is." We also learn that Nancy has mostly stopped going to church.
Marshall struggles to reconcile his faith with his son’s same-sex attraction and gay identity. He tells Jared, "I want you to do well. I want you to have a great life. I love you. But I can’t pretend, either. I don’t want to lose you."
Jared responds, "I’m gay. And I’m your son. And neither of those things is going to change. … I’m not changing. God knows I’ve tried. … I’m sorry, you’re going to have to be the one to change."
Participants in the program are required to do a genogram, a family tree that lists relatives’ moral failings, including same-sex attraction, promiscuity, pornography and abortion.
Masturbation and viewing pornography are repeatedly referenced as banned behaviours; to help enforce that ban, all personal belongings are turned in to the leaders, who say that they have the right to examine phones, journals and other personal effects. The dress code requires modest clothing for women and prohibits going braless. All touching outside of a handshake is strictly prohibited.
The young men (all in their late teens) go through a masculine-appearance "boot camp" to help them shed effeminate mannerisms, with a young woman ranking how masculine they appear to be. They’re forced to take turns in a batting cage; the suggestion is that participating in sports will make them more "manly." They’re also told that they can’t cross their legs when sitting, and there’s other talk contrasting "manly" and "girly" postures.
Public confessions of teens (both male and female) include graphic, detailed descriptions of sexual experiences. Jared asks his mother about relatives who may have had sexual issues, and she tells him, "Uncle Vincent … was very feminine, you might say."
Early on, while Jared’s still in high school, he goes swimming at a lake with a bunch of his friends—including his girlfriend, Chloe. A couple of girls are shown swimming in their bras and underwear. Afterward, Chloe kisses him in the car. She reaches for his crotch, but Jared asks her to wait. Using explicitly sexual language, Chloe says she can arouse Jared. Chloe mistakenly believes Jared’s trying to stay sexually pure, which leads to a conversation about their parents’ desire for them to wait for marriage before having sex. Chloe clearly thinks that’s unreasonable, given that marriage is still years away.
In Jared’s encounter with Xavier (as mentioned above), it’s suggested that the two young men spend the night together in bed just holding hands. (Sykes believes Jared is lying, but we don’t see anything that suggests otherwise.)
Jared’s first same-sex encounter happens during his freshman year of college. He meets a guy named Henry who ends up spending the night in his dorm room. Jared is clearly attracted to him, and the two begin kissing. But Jared is hesitant to go further when the other young man …
… rapes Jared, putting a hand over the top of Jared’s mouth so that he can’t scream. The assault avoids nudity, but Henry’s shown on top of a struggling Jared, and it’s very clear what’s happening.
Afterward, both are distraught, and Henry confesses that he assaulted another younger boy at church, too. Henry is very upset at himself, asking, "What the h— is wrong with me? … I’m going to be in so much trouble." Henry then fears Jared will tell someone about that assault, and he anonymously tells Jared’s parents that their son is gay—which prompts them to confront Jared regarding his sexual identity.
Jared sees a billboard at a bus stop picturing a shirtless male model. He stares longingly at it and touches it, then picks up a rock and angrily smashes the glass covering the image.
Jared’s increasingly tense relationship with Sykes never results in outright physical confrontation. But at one point, Sykes and others pursue and corner Jared as he essentially tries to "escape."
As mentioned, one young man in the program is beaten with Bibles by his family. Near the end of the film, we hear that he has committed suicide.
Crude or Profane Language
Three f-words, three s-words. One use each of "f-ggot" and "d–mit."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Jared sees Sykes secretly smoking, underscoring the program leader’s hypocrisy. One group leader talks about his prior history as a violent gang member who was involved with drugs and eventually went to prison.
Other behaviours that program participants are instructed to list on their genograms include alcoholism and drug use.
Other Negative Elements
The Love in Action program depicted here is, obviously, controlling to the extreme, with Sykes being characterised essentially as a cult-like leader. Among the program’s many rules is a prohibition against participants telling anyone outside the group what goes on there.
At the heart of Boy Erased is the controversial issue of conversion therapy, i.e., therapy that’s intended to help people overcome or manage unwanted homosexual attraction.
But what we see here is anything but therapeutic—or Christian. It’s legalistic, controlling, manipulative, abusive and shame-based. It focuses on behaviour and effort, not on heart transformation in a growing relationship with Christ. Love in Action is depicted here as being, essentially, cult-like. It’s hardly a surprise when one participant tragically chooses to take his own life after being beaten with Bibles by his own family.
And even though Jesus’ name is invoked frequently, I can’t help but think that He’d weep over how it’s used to bludgeon and badger these struggling teens. Likewise, most of the Christians in this film are depicted as heartless, hypocritical monsters. Because of that, Boy Erased—based on the nonfiction memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley—feels perilously close to being a horror movie by the time the credits roll.
But Boy Erased takes a significant step beyond just showing the horrors of this particular program. It implies that no one could ever benefit from any program that utilises prayer, godly counsel and wise guidance to help willing participants (which not everyone in this film is) find spiritual freedom from unwanted same-sex attraction.
Virtually the only sympathetic Christian here is Jared’s mother, Nancy, who fiercely seeks to protect her son from the abuse he’s suffered. But in the end, she quits going to church herself, perhaps suggesting that it’s simply impossible to reconcile the tension between her son’s sexual identity and the faith she once espoused. (Marshall is clearly conflicted too, but his own struggle to reconcile his faith, his love for his son and his son’s homosexuality isn’t presented in a flattering light.)
Boy Erased is winning accolades and plaudits in the mainstream press for its gritty treatment of this difficult issue. But this film’s depiction of Christians who don’t believe that homosexual behavior is what God intended is cartoonish and one-dimensional. There’s no nuance here at all: Christians who hold to a conviction that homosexuality is a sin are at deeply misguided at best, but more likely just plain … evil.
Writer/director/producer Joel Edgerton, who also portrays Victor Sykes (a character name choice that communicates a great deal about the film’s perspective) is best known for his roles playing creepy villains. He certainly embodies another one here. Sykes doesn’t seem merely misguided. He seems wicked. And when the credits tell us that the real-life character he’s based upon eventually re-embraced homosexuality himself, we’re supposed to nod knowingly, recognizing his obvious hypocrisy.
Same-sex attraction is a complex issue, requiring a response full of grace and truth. But both biblical virtues get badly blurred here.
For more on dealing with the issue of same-sex attraction, consider these Focus on the Family resources:
"When a Loved One Says, ‘I’m Gay’"
"Understanding Homosexuality: Eight Helpful Resources"
"Counselling for Sexual Identity Concerns: A Measured, Careful, and Compassionate Approach"