The gaining of self-knowledge is at the heart of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” bisexual filmmaker Desiree Akhavan’s (“Appropriate Behavior”) bittersweet adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s novel about a teen forging her independence and finding her identity in the face of repression.
The film opens with a pastor (Steven Hauck) warning Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) and other youths in his church group that, as an adult, he has had to “undo what he did at your age, when we were vulnerable to evil.” He continues, “Fun is actually the enemy… closing the noose around your necks.”
It’s standard fire and brimstone stuff, delivered in a way that Cameron, who is in love with Coley (Quinn Shephard), her best friend in Bible Study, is sure to ignore. In fact, during their prom, Cameron and Coley sneak off to make out in a car, only to be discovered in that compromising position by one of their dates. Following that, Cameron’s Aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler) sends her off to God’s Promise, a gay conversion therapy center for “re-education.”
Cameron instinctively knows there is nothing “wrong” with her same-sex attraction. She still thinks about watching “Desert Hearts” with Coley and getting frisky with her. But as she starts to assimilate at God’s Promise, Cameron starts to reflect more on her identity and what the folks who run the religious conversion camp call her “gender confusion.” The film generates its dramatic tension out of Cameron’s efforts to be true to her desires while toeing an appropriate line in the camp.
The strength of Akhavan’s film is that it presents its characters authentically. Cameron is thrust into a world she is skeptical of and she learns how to cope by watching others. She sees how hard her roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) tries to “convert” to straight, overcompensating for her same-sex attractions as a result. In contrast, Cameron’s fellow “disciples” Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) are both justly disillusioned by God’s Promise and the “treatment” that is absolutely not going to change who they are. She bonds with these like-minded teens on hikes — an approved, gender-neutral activity — and they help Cameron process her feelings and manage daily life in the program.
Cameron is wary of Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), an ex-gay instructor and Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), the director of God’s Promise. Some of their therapy is useful to her, but when she is assigned an “iceberg” exercise — to identify behavior that needs correcting — she treats the activity with disdain. As Cameron gets to know the instructors and other disciples at God’s Promise, she is forced to confront her personal truth.
Akhavan, who co-wrote the script with Cecilia Frugiuele, shrewdly contrasts faith in God with one’s inner knowledge of what they desire. When Cameron confesses she feels “phony” praying, the subtext is that she has no confusion when it comes to her sexuality. The honesty of each character in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” illustrates how they understand themselves, their faith, and their sexuality. Cameron is a likable heroine in part because she comes to acknowledge that this program is designed “to make people hate themselves.” And she figures out how to navigate around that.
Her struggles, as well as those of other characters, are palpable. There is a very moving scene in which Cameron cries as she calls her Aunt Ruth, begging her to let her come back home. Another key exchange has a judgmental Erin confronting Cameron about shoplifting, trying to lead her down a righteous path. An intense scene between the roommates later in the film, however, casts Erin in a very different light.
When Dr. Marsh subjects Adam to a haircut — she warns him on several occasions to keep his long hair out of his eyes “so God can see you” — we see the competing forces of control and defiance. The difficulties the teens here face hit home most notably in a scene involving a frustrated disciple who in time acts out on their frustration in a violent way. The episode’s violence compounds the emotional abuse these teens experience.
As Cameron measures herself against the other teens as well as the adults, she learns she can empower herself by quietly rebelling and embracing her queer identity. Moretz gives a nuanced performance in the title role, artfully conveying thoughts and desires, both expressed and concealed.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is a somber drama that builds to a quietly powerful conclusion. In an age where gay conversion therapy still exists — and remains a threat to LGBTQ youth — Akhavan’s film is as timely as ever. Hopefully the film’s salient points don’t fall on deaf ears.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST | Directed by Desiree Akhavan | Film Rise | Opens Aug. 3 | Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St. | quadcinema.com