Film & Television

‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’
Coming of Age in Conversion Camp

There were 3,901 feature-length submissions for just 110 slots at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. So the odds of being chosen weren’t exactly in any given director’s favor. The odds of winning the Grand Jury Prize were exponentially lower. Yet that’s where filmmaker Desiree Akhavan found herself last January. Her movie The Miseducation of Cameron Post, along with its impressive young star, Chloë Grace Moretz, received enthusiastic praise from the festival’s critics. What it did not receive, however, was a distribution deal.

“American audiences are afraid of female sexuality,” Akhavan rationalizes. “Distributors don’t want to take risks.”

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is risky. It tells the story of a young woman and her experience at a gay conversion camp. Cameron (Moretz), a high school junior, is caught making out with her best friend, Coley (Quinn Shephard), in the back of a car during a homecoming dance. The person who catches them happens to be her boyfriend. Devout Christians, Cameron’s aunt and uncle send her to “God’s Promise,” where she’ll have the support she needs to “pray away the gay” and be cured of the sin of “SSA,” same-sex attraction. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she’s told, “What’s wrong with you is your fault, and it’s yours to fix.”

The movie, set in 1993 but achingly relevant today, is sometimes reminiscent of 1999’s Girl, Interrupted. We’re quickly introduced to Cameron’s fellow “disciples.” There’s a girl who’s in love with a female member of her church choir; a girl whose love of sports has kept her from being feminine; a boy whose father upbraids him for being “too effeminate”; another who tries to sublimate his “gender confusion” into masturbation, only to realize that “self pleasure” is a sin too. Cameron neither commits nor makes waves; she’s watchful and soon notices two disciples who seem to be quietly rebelling. Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck) grow pot in the nearby woods and have maintained some sense of reality and even irony. The three become friends.

The grownups running God’s Promise aren’t stereotypical bad guys. Neither Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) nor his sister Dr. Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) is a sadist. No one is physically abused. Rick, a former gay man who has been successfully converted, is all optimism and light and Christian folk songs on his guitar. Dr. Marsh, a psychologist who helped him, is strict and cold, but clearly believes in what she’s doing—literally saving souls. “It’s like having your own Disney villain,” jokes Adam, “Only this one won’t let you jerk off.”

One of the central symbols of therapy at God’s Promise is “the iceberg.” Each participant is presented with a line drawing of a ship approaching an iceberg, the very tip of which is above the water with a much larger mass below it. They’re encouraged to fill in all the reasons for their aberrant behavior under the surface. So, while their family and friends (the boat) may only see their gender confusion and same-sex attraction above the water line, there are reasons lurking underneath. These may include unbalanced relationships with one parent or the other, a desire to be like the object of their interest, exposure to activities more appropriate for the other gender—or even, in Cameron’s case, having an unfeminine name.

Cameron dutifully fills in her iceberg, but recognizes that any sexual confusion she feels is due to her age and hormones and not because she’s a sinner. She also keenly recognizes that Reverend Rick and Dr. Marsh don’t really know what they’re doing. In fact, they are doing more harm than good.

I won’t give away the climax of the film or its satisfying, if not wholly conclusive. ending. What I will say is that by depicting life at God’s Promise as less than horror, Akhavan and her co-writer and producer Cecilia Frugiuele somehow make it all the more horrible. The depiction feels unceasingly accurate.

Moretz, who at twenty-one already has more than 60 film credits to her name, may play a teenager here, but she is quickly proving herself to be an accomplished and affecting grownup actress. (If you’re a Netflix subscriber, look for her in Brain on Fire, based on Susannah Cahalan’s deeply moving memoir about her struggle with encephalitis.) Her performance is often underplayed, but you can tell that there’s much going on behind those soulful eyes. Her Cameron moves cautiously, seeing the situation more clearly than many of her peers, but safeguarding her privacy as much as she can in a place where the staff can search your belongings, publically pry open your inner thoughts, and even shine a flashlight into your room at night to make sure that you’re alone in your own bed (and not self-pleasuring).

The supporting cast is very strong, especially Lane and Goodluck as Cameron’s friends, and Gallagher, Jr. and Ehle as their would-be saviors. Ehle, in particular, delivers a chilling performance. (It’s sometimes hard for me to think of her as anyone other than Elizabeth Bennett in the BBC’s legendary miniseries Pride and Prejudice. Suffice it to say, here she has the frosty demeanor of Lady Catherine de Bourgh combined with the religious rightness of Mr. Collins, without any hint of the ridiculousness of either one.)

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  • Rebecca Olander August 28, 2018 at 7:47 am

    The headline of this review almost made me not read the review, and to make false assumptions about the film. If I hadn’t gone on to read the review, those assumptions would have solidified, which is a shame. And this is even though I had just seen the preview for this film at my local indie movie house, and had thought it looked great. From actually reading this article, I have gathered that the film will be indeed be great, though just not seen as widely as it should be due to a lack of commercial support. It sounds nuanced and surprising, a unique take on a horrific situation. Not at all preachy. But the headline proclaims that it preaches to the choir, which is exactly what the filmmaker says she fears will happen – not because of her film, but due to a lack of mainstream distribution. I think the review has the potential to help spread the word about this fine film and therefore expand its audience beyond “the choir,” but I fear the headline does a disservice and may stop some from seeing, which would be horrible! Without reading the piece, one might think the headline speaks to the message of the film as being didactic (the phrase “preaching to the choir” has such a negative connotation), rather than to its potential small audience being those who already possess a open-minded mindset about sexuality and its many expressions. The review itself is great, though, and I do plan on seeing the film!