She is barely off the boat when it happens. Chloë Grace Moretz’s Cameron Post, a young but relatively confident girl, is only now tormented by her sexuality because of how it’s suddenly treated. Or diagnosed. When discovered with her best friend in the backseat of their car by a nominal, male homecoming date, her aunt shipped her off to a “pray the gay away” conversion camp, which in 1993 was treated much more earnestly than the cynical 2018 lens through which the film views these events. Abandoned at a rural, year-round camp and forced to sign away her privileges—including the ability to open her own mail—by a smiling “reformed” counselor who also shuffles through her suitcase like he’s auditioning for the TSA, the heroine of The Miseducation of Cameron Post attempts to take it all in stride until the eponymous brainwashing begins.
Sitting in class, she is greeted to her new home by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), a psychiatrist who has made it her life’s mission to “correct” young teenagers into realizing why they should hate themselves and their nature, just as her younger brother and fellow counselor Rev. Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) now does. So in that classroom, Cameron is singled out by Lydia as perfectly redeemable if she’d just let Jesus heal her. “Welcome, Cameron.” When the young woman tries to correct her new mentor/warden that she prefers “Cam,” she receives her first of many reprimands. You see, “Cam” just further contributes to her “gender confusion” by accentuating the maleness of her already, excessively masculine name.
Even the Christian name her dead parents gave her is subject to derision and judgement among all these concerned Christians.
This familiar irony is at the heart of director Desiree Akhavan’s provocative and genuinely poignant film, which looks to unlock the bitter, bitter truth about gay conversion therapy and these evangelical brainwashing centers. And it does so without pretense or apology. Indeed, the most striking and satisfying element of this Grand Jury Prize winner out of Sundance is simply how direct it is in finding not only humor and sweet coming-of-age contours in this familiar setting of LGBTQ cinema, but also an unrepentant ability to assess its horror and damage without arch posture or deflective handholding.
Set in 1993 during the fall semester of a girl’s most formative year, The Miseducation of Cameron Post recounts in a nonlinear fashion the life experiences that brought Moretz’s Cam into the clutches of well-meaning fanatics, and how unwell that attention can ultimately become. This is accomplished by contrasting her day-to-day life of walking around her vaguely idyllic Northwestern prison with her nighttime memories of her first love (Quinn Shepherd), as well as her fantasies about classmates, teachers, and the blur of fantasy and reality. She is first drawn to the desire of those who want to become “cured” of their Same Sex Attraction (diagnosed by Lydia as the SSA condition, something as unfortunate as any other personality disorder). In this vein, there’s her roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), who tries to convince Cam that they should be interested in some of the male students who are also trying to understand their supposed disorder, as well as Helen (Melanie Ehrlich), who is convinced she only was drawn to her former choir friend’s “perfect pitch.”
And then there are those who Cam falls far more comfortably in line with, like the self-styled Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), the child of a hippie mother who made the unfortunate mistake of marrying a Born Again hero, and Mark (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American kid whose father just had to enter politics in the rural West. These two are Lydia’s hopeless, hard luck cases, but hey, they’ll still smoke weed with Cam and help her hijack the radio to blessedly turn off the Christian rock in favor of Melissa Etheridge. Hardly a happy childhood for any of them, at least their misery has company, giving them some kind of semblance of growing up in this whacked environment.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s success stems from how minimalist and yet sophisticated it can be in offering a dramatic rendering of of this special kind of hell. Adapted from an Emily M. Danforth novel of the same name, it takes a narrower and more sharply pointed, 90-minute route than the lengthy source. As opposed to older films on similar subject matters from previous decades, whether it be gay conversion satires like But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) or other melodramatic pieces about teenage evangelical crucibles, such as Saved! (2004), there is no desire to cajole or sweetly mock the naïve biases of godly oppressors. While this film depicts Gallagher’s Rev. Rick as a pleasant fool who’s doomed himself to unhappiness—Ehle by contrast plays a most self-content incarnation of the Devil—the movie is not interested in empathizing with the mistaken or in persuading a sheltered, skeptical audience.
Akhavan’s Miseducation is as assured in who it is and why it’s right as Jane Fonda (either of them). As such, the movie has a refreshingly open candor that is free of equivocation. It also rings as authentically raw in its truth, even when it also finds space for fun and good cheer in its setting. After all, this is still in the end a story of a young woman coming into her own, so it is fine with discovering moments of peace for Cam, whether it is on a hike with friends or in her bemusement at the absurdity of Rick’s “origin story” for salvation. Even her moments of lovemaking are presented as tender and natural, as opposed to shocking or dramatically entrenched in some kind of faux-anguish.
As the young heroine, Chloë Grace Moretz gives the best performance so far in her career, finally finding an adult role that plays to her strengths of pensive intensity and often wordless introspection while inhaling her surroundings. It’s a fine central anchor to Akhavan’s smooth journey into what could’ve easily been troubled waters. They’re also complemented by impressive supporting work all around, with a special gravitas achieved by Ehle as a force of wicked nature who is mistakenly convinced in her virtue.
Miseducation is an effectively disarming and often bittersweet picture that should resonate with many an isolated youth. But it also brings about what should be a clear-eyed and universal revulsion for its subject matter of adolescent years, and sometimes whole lives, being sanctimoniously interrupted.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in August.