The Miseducation of Cameron Post flips the script on the usual film about a facility for troubled teens by dropping its kids in a Christian gay conversion camp, where it’s their adult counselors who are the troubled ones.
Desiree Akhavan’s film — based on a 2012 novel by Emily Danforth and which won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival — takes place in 1993 in a less tolerant America. Chloë Grace Moretz delivers her strongest performance to date as 16-year-old Cameron, who is quickly shuffled off by her guardians to God’s Promise in hopes the camp can pray the gay away after she’s caught with her girlfriend.
But the film doesn’t go down the nightmarish path one might expect if one’s heard stories of the very worst examples of gay conversion therapy camps. The kids aren’t physically tortured; in fact, God’s Promise is more like the hippy version of gay conversion therapy with group therapy sessions where the kids are encouraged to talk about their feelings. Those scenes feel like they could have almost been pulled out of Destin Daniel Cretton’s excellent 2013 film Short Term 12, only there’s nothing wrong with these kids and the counselors don’t know what they’re doing.
One of the aspects of Miseducation I most appreciated was its empathy for even its deeply misguided therapists. They’re not bad people; they truly believe they are working to better the psychological and spiritual health of their charges and form a genuine, touching bond with them. John Gallagher Jr’s Reverand Rick laughs with them, cries with them, enjoys their movie recommendations.But while Cameron herself was never much of a believer and has no interest in changing her sexual orientation, there is a profound realization that comes from a child discovering the adults running the asylum are as clueless and uncertain as you are.
Perhaps some audiences would prefer a film about the harsher, more physically abusive gay conversion camps that exist to this very day. But while that story needs to be told too, I greatly appreciated a subtler film where the abuses aren’t so black and white, and where the audience can almost forget for periods of time that, despite the good intentions and the apparent pleasantness of those in charge, real psychological harm is being done.
Of course, a dark turn is inevitable and, late in the film, something happens that’s fairly predictable to those familiar with cinematic tropes. Fortunately, Akhavan avoids the pitfall of overdramatization.
But the unsurprising nature of the final act doesn’t spoil the goodwill the film earns with its almost Neorealist visual style and strong performances, including those of Jennifer Ehle, as the treatment center’s administrator, as well as Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Forrest Goodluck, as Cameron’s two main friends at God’s Promise. Gallagher too brings great poignancy to his role as a counselor who, having been “cured” himself by the therapy, is wrestling with a delicate inner conflict buried under the veneer of confidence.
On the surface, this is a story about systemic repression, a classic girl versus society story. Certainly, an indictment of the anti-gay bigotry in the systems and institutions of evangelical Christianity is implicit in the narrative. But The Miseducation of Cameron Post isn’t a gay rallying cry for rebellion; its themes are more universal. It’s a story of young people developing who they are in a world where none of the grown-ups hold the answers either.