At the very start of Boy Erased, the head therapist of a gay conversion therapy program asks a room full of teenagers for a show of hands of everybody who is imperfect. A sea of tentative limbs rise. There are more boys than girls, and skittish glances circle around the group as the young men silently try to figure out whether this anguish will ever pass. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the titular boy working against his demons, following the course of psychological erasure in order to exorcize the emotions that are sabotaging his existence. Being gay is a condition that must be treated, just like any other disease, though it's dealt with more like a vice.
In an ocean of coming-of-age movies, teenagers grappling with anxiety in mundane situations dominate the genre. By focusing on everyday struggles, these films feel accessible by reflecting adolescent rites of passage, like the crushing normality of a first love in Call Me By Your Name or the restlessness of a determined senior year in Lady Bird. But this fall, the torment of the teenage boy runs deeper. Instead of coming of age naturally while inevitably suffering a little in the process, from the brainwashing of Boy Erased to the intoxication in Beautiful Boy and the bashing-through of Mid90s, these kids are inherently defined by what causes them pain. If they do eventually grow up in the process, that’s just a bonus.
Jared’s sexuality is pitted against him before he even has time to understand it. When he’s outed to his parents anonymously, his uncertainty becomes an undeniable imperfection that must be fixed. The things that torment him are no longer just the product of his own self-doubt, but a fact that everyone believes: It's just the way he is, and it’s not good enough.
In Beautiful Boy, Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) struggles with substance abuse on his own, but his relationship with crystal meth ends up having a severe influence on his father David (Steve Carell) and his network of family and friends. It’s a self-inflicted and uncontrollable form of suffering, in which his pain has to explain him, however much he tries to escape it.
In Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, the male protagonist has a somewhat less life-threatening inner conflict, but he's no less tormented. At just 13 years old, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is younger than Jared and Nic, Mid90s is the concrete road he bruises himself against, hurting obsessively in the name of friendship. Because Stevie wants to be cool at all costs, he puts himself through the motions of physical and psychological battering in order to both purge and embrace the vices that characterize the teenage years at their most exciting. While Boy Erased and Beautiful Boy reckon with external influences which enable emotional scarring, Mid90s evokes suffering more literally and still barely escapes with fewer scratches.
The way these boys look matters: They are all white, handsome, slender; the archetypal American ideal of boyhood. They could all be starring in a film called Beautiful Boy, as their white skin is smooth and their jawlines strong. Gone are the teenagers who are imperfect with graphic flaws, or even have blemishes that feel remotely relatable. While acne helped Lady Bird and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade feel much closer to reality, the beauty of these teenage boys makes their self-inflicted suffering all the more interesting to watch. Nic comes from a wealthy family, with a big house with wood paneling and endless streams of sunlight. His bone structure is sharp and his hair is thick and shiny. The damage he suffers disregards the world that was given to him, from a comfortable household that encouraged an easy life.
Jared’s home is equally sturdy, and his body is strong. Along with the other boys at the gay conversion center, Love In Action, he’s attractive in an effortless and endearing way, which invites bodies toward his own. But the more he appeals and the more he feels, the more his mind is poisoned with a sense of failing.
Stevie hides behind a mop of clean brown hair and bounces around tirelessly to make up for the few inches in height he’s still lacking. His big blue eyes and cheeky smile make it easier for people to fall for him, but, like Nic, a skinny frame is something that makes him more vulnerable to bouts of self-destruction. The boys aren’t big enough, strong enough, or cool enough, so the natural qualities that make them lovable are ignored, in their introspective mission to punish themselves for all the things they’re still lacking.
Introspection makes romance a tricky topic for teenage boys who suffer before they are satisfied. At an age where hormones dictate most of the decisions they make, the young men have had a taste of sex and the feelings that come of it, without still really being influenced by the power (good or bad) of human connection. It’s only a traumatic experience that allows Jared to start questioning his sexuality, which even for the first few months of conversion therapy is still only considered as a smear on his life. Loving another person isn’t a priority when a person feels alien in their own body. Nic has a girlfriend over time who comes and goes, because he’s not in a position to take care of himself or give her the love they both deserve. Stevie has an encounter with an older teen, which, if it were a 13-year-old girl in his place, could be potentially problematic. But she represents one of many stepping stones on a quest of friendship and fun that doesn’t ultimately impact Stevie’s ambition. The boys reject affection and romantic relationships, rather than forcing their partners to engage. The fact that they live with solitude is a shame, but it’s indicative of a self-absorbed lifestyle which is still too immature to share feeling with another person. To have that awareness rather than inflicting trauma on those who fall for them is a welcome relief.
By exploring the psyche of teenage boys who are catatonically tormented on their own, the upcoming slate of teen movies allows a distance that harms only the protagonists at the center. Mid90s is infused with a nostalgia for an era of iconic pop culture, but Stevie’s battles stand alone with the tenacious crashes that decide his coming of age. There’s no romanticism in the youth of Boy Erased or Beautiful Boy, which cares for their characters without pretending adolescence was any easier than life is now. The demons that haunt Jared don’t disappear—as he grows up, they transform into the very sign of love that defines who he is. Nic is, as far as we know, learning to live with his pain too. It’s not something he has grown out of, as rehabilitation never rules out relapse, but his disease has inevitably impacted the person he has become. As Stevie breaks his bones and screams his fears, he confronts and surpasses problems that don’t need to limit him. In five or 10 years, he might look back at the boy who suffered to be the man he is now and thank him for his pain. It’s like the saying goes, without really giving justification for the frustration, boys will be boys, no matter how much they, or we, try to fight against it.
Boy Erased, Mid90s, and Beautiful Boy are in theaters now.