There were a lot of ways that telling The Miseducation of Cameron Post could have gone wrong, to become either a self-serious Indie Oscar Bait borefest or grossly insensitive to the realities of conversion camps, but, even if the result can feel a little too low-key for its own good, director Desiree Akhavan and co-screenwriter Cecilia Frugiuele turn out to have exactly the right touch needed to pull things off.
You can find that kind of exemplary execution in the film’s opening montage. Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz, finally getting to come good again after a rough few years) is a lesbian High Schooler in the early 90s North West engaged in a secret relationship with her best friend. They make out, have sex, both have boyfriends who effectively act as distraction techniques for any potential suspicion, and seem very much in love. But on a Prom night, they get careless, having sex in the back of the car of Cameron’s date, and the resulting discovery sends Cameron packing to a remote conversion therapy centre called God’s Promise run by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) whom was the first to be “cured” by Dr. Marsh and believes himself to be truly “saved.”
All of this information is condensed into about 10 minutes, the only even slightly elongated scene out of the lot being the fateful backseat sex, but Akhavan slides effortlessly between tone and mood during it. The thrill of young love, the awkward humour in Cameron faking interest only halfway convincingly in her ‘boyfriend,’ the tension of a few close-calls with Cameron’s doggedly-conservative aunt – her parents died when she was young, information that’s already understood even before Cameron explains it to her fellow ‘campers’ later on in the film – the slow-burn chill of the build-up to the outing and how time seems to just freeze for Cameron when it does come. There’s an inevitability to it all, sure, and it does hang over the opening, but Akhavan doesn’t smother the film in it. She doesn’t allow it to negate the light that Cameron gets, the fun and the thrill of the relationship in the first place, of it being something that helps her better understand herself and give her something to look forward to in the boring nothing of her hometown.
And Akhavan extends that balance across the entirety of Cameron Post, which is where much of its power comes from. God’s Promise is a place that is determined to systemically erase a vital part of its charges’ identity, often through a combination of blunt gendering in line with conservative Christian values – Cameron prefers being called Cam which Lydia immediately shuts down due to Cameron “being a masculine enough name as is,” whilst any girls partaking in sports are, according to the Dr.’s way of thinking, willingly attempting to confuse their own sexualities as a cry for attention towards their fathers – and emotional manipulation. Group therapy sessions designed to spread a shared desire to “get better,” withholding communication privileges until enough ‘progress’ has been made, deliberately pushing a child’s buttons and just hoping that the desired reaction will come about.
Yet, for all the real psychological harm a place like God’s Promise can and does cause, it also turns out to be a place that can bring queer teenagers together in order to become more assured of themselves. For a place designed to tear them down and prey upon their confusion, Akhavan and Frugueile also draw attention to just how strange it is that teenagers like Cameron can actually get more exposure and understanding about themselves and their sexualities here than in their own homes. In a pre-Internet age, it forces them all together – in addition to Cameron, the film follows her budding friendships with Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), daughter of a hippie-based commune whose parents’ liberalism only extended so far, Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), whose politician father has forced Adam there in fear of how his son’s homosexuality will affect his political image, and roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), who is trying to commit to the program despite its obvious ineffectiveness. It allows them to share experiences, to recognise that they’re not alone, to grow closer through minor attempts at flouting the rules, to effectively normalise each other’s behaviour as the trust between them starts to grow.
So, there is always this complicated disconnect that runs throughout Cameron Post. That of the reality of the harm that these places do through their systemic erasure based on phoney pseudo-science, and the simultaneous reality that, in some lucky instances, it’s also helping some people better understand who they are through the daily forced proximity to others like themselves. There’s neither an ominous deathly-serious fog encasing everything in sight and swallowing up any potential joy or light, but neither is it a rebellious feel-good coming-of-age story of teenage self-discovery. Instead, Akhavan intentionally aims for that complex middle, living in the space of the inbuilt contradictions and hypocrisies of camps like God’s Hope, drawing attention to the fact that nobody in charge has any clue about what they’re doing less through protracted sessions or Shocking™ sequences of extreme therapy (none such exist in this film) and more through the crushing boredom of a daily routine not massively distinct from the one Cameron already had at home, just in a far more remote location which is pegged as the reason why more rebellious/contemptuous pupils of the camp haven’t already made a break for it.
Her characters can often be somewhat vague and ill-defined, but here it feels like less of an unintended flaw and more of a conscious design choice. After all, they’re teenagers. Sexually confused teenagers being forced into an environment designed to compound that fact. They feel vague in a thought-out way, in the same way the viewer may not have fully known themselves at that age, and the uniformly stellar cast do great work with such a tough brief. Ehle and Gallagher similarly produce lived-in results to characters that could have read as reductive or one-note. Ehle embodies authority without ever hinting at cartoonishness, more like a firm headmaster, a mundanity that only makes her character more low-key unsettling. Gallagher, meanwhile, radiates an understandable charm when required that only draws more attention to Rick’s uncomfortableness and a turmoil that is clearly evident inside of him but which he will likely never act upon, instead cowardly continuing to push forward the emotional pain upon others behind a smile and a song.
Cameron Post, as mentioned, is a deliberately quiet and small film, which often works to its advantage. Akhavan continues to demonstrate her skills as a director both visually – the ways in which she communicates homosexual attraction are so refreshing in a time where most other directors believe there’s only a binary choice between ‘obnoxious slo-mo close-ups’ (Tom Hooper) or ‘distant chaste framing’ (Luca Guadagnino); an early flashback nails a sweet-spot between the two without drawing attention to that fact – and tonally. It can be a heavy film but it’s not a humourless or joyless one, with her having some fun at the expense of the time period and the often-arbitrary nature of what constitutes good Christian values or not (the latter involving a Christian workout tape that gets a great payoff down the road).
In fact, her refusal to swing for the fences, with the exception of a pivotal moment near the film’s end that’s the only major bum note due to it sticking out against the rest of the film, arguably creates something more affecting. It’s easy to paint this kind of homophobia in big sensationalist scary strokes, and it objectively is, but the reality in terms of societal feel is more mundane, more insidious and it resultantly spikes everything, even when positive personal growth sprouts up in spite of it. There’s a concert midway through the film that gradually turns into a Christian clarion call which sent shivers down my spine.
Still, I could also argue that it may be too deliberately quiet and small for its own good. At a certain point, the film just kind of stops without much build-up or warning, and there is a distinct lack of forward momentum throughout that’s only pronounced by the ending. It can feel like a truly sensational work that has reined itself in by choice into just being a great work, something with charm, great performances and a unique approach to mood and feel that’s fearful of shooting for the stars in case doing so messes too much with the tightrope it wants to walk.
Then again, I have been chewing over The Miseducation of Cameron Post in my head frequently in the month since I’ve seen it, and it’s been a while since I’ve had a film that intentionally pushed my emotions into a complicated place like this one does. It doesn’t deal in absolutes, it lives for the area where they blur into something more complex and ultimately truthful, which I think is why I am so enamoured with Akhavan’s career so far and am hoping that she continues to make good on the promise she’s displaying. Cameron Post is a refreshing and unique take on this sort of material, strongly told by a true rising star, absolutely worth your time.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is playing in select US theatres now, and will release in the UK on 7th September.