The Miseducation of Cameron Post was one of those movies I instinctively avoided at Sundance—a decision that was, admittedly, based on very little information. With festival schedules, you usually only get an image and a synopsis to go on, and based on Miseducation’s single still frame, it seemed to fit a certain kind of festival archetype: The movie where promising young actors stand around a bleak town looking sad.
Granted, Miseducation turns out to be a little more than that, but... the gist was unfortunately correct. This is the kind of tweener indie that displays future potential, mostly from the cast, but also from director/co-writer Desiree Akhavan, even as the overall result simply isn’t noteworthy enough to recommend.
As you may have already guessed from the title, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on Emily Danforth’s young adult novel, is about “gay-conversion therapy.” Chloë Grace Moretz plays Cameron, a lesbian teen in ’90s Montana whose “boyfriend” catches her hooking up with her girlfriend (Quinn Shephard). Pretty soon, Cameron’s shipped off to a crazy Jesus camp where psychopaths vow that they’ll teach her to be “normal.”
Gay conversion therapy is a bizarre phenomenon: The idea that (1) we should prevent teens from being gay, and (2) the best way to accomplish this is to stick them in a camp full of other gay teens, away from parental supervision, is so comically misguided that it borders on the absurd.
It’s there she meets Adam (Forrest Goodluck) and Jane (Sasha Lane), two teens similarly skeptical about the utility of gay conversion; Reverend Rick, an ostensibly ex-gay pastor (John Gallagher Jr., in a twist on his camp counselor character from Short Term 12, a vaguely similar but much better movie); and Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), Reverend Rick’s ice-cold sister who originally converted him.
Gay conversion therapy is a bizarre phenomenon: The idea that (1) we should prevent teens from being gay, and (2) the best way to accomplish this is to stick them in a camp full of other gay teens, away from parental supervision, is so comically misguided that it borders on the absurd. Akhavan, though, seems to have no barometer for the absurd or the surreal, only the melodramatic and the sad. Cameron’s parents are dead. Jane is missing a leg from a car crash. Everyone is being abused by draconian religious nuts who are trying to cure them of the incurable through haircuts and supervision of their musical choices.
I remember this particular brand of rural, ’90s, anti-sex, religious zealot quite vividly—being taught sex-ed by public school teachers who went overboard to characterize masturbation as a grave sin, for instance—and Miseducation is plenty accurate. It’s also very one-note. Isn’t this sad? the movie seems to constantly say. Well, yes—but isn’t it also silly, surreal, absurd, self-defeating, and darkly comedic? Miseducation has small moments of humor, but they’re few and far between. You can see the inevitable self-harm scene getting in a cab three miles down the road, along with cathartic moments of staring up at the sky and watching the scenery from moving cars.
Another issue is that when Cameron shows up, she’s a gay conversion skeptic, and when she leaves she’s a gay conversion skeptic. Often she says the things we want her to say, like when a county official asks about abuse at the facility and she says, “What’s teaching teenagers to hate themselves if not emotional abuse?” You tell her!
But while these moments—Cameron putting a finer point on things—are briefly enjoyable, the character doesn’t quite have an arc. Not many in the film do, with the possible exception of Reverend Rick. And so we have a premise that starts strong, but despite fine acting (Goodluck being the biggest surprise, and we already know how good Lane, Moretz, and Gallagher are), it mostly just gets repetitive.
That said, making and releasing a small-budget movie is damn near impossible these days—and despite its flaws, The Miseducation of Cameron Post does a lot of things right. I can’t quite recommend it, but I’ll be watching for whatever Akhavan and company do next.