If there is such a thing as finding the perfect balance between comedy and drama when it comes to portraying as serious a subject as gay reparative therapy, director Desiree Akhavan has done it with The Miseducation of Cameron Post. She and her co-screenwriter, Cecilia Frugiuele, with the help of the cast and crew, have crafted a picture that feels rich and authentic. The film doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of what goes on at “pray away the gay” camps. These controversial (to put it charitably) religious-based “conversion therapy” programs have damaged countless lives. States like California have taken steps in recent months to ban the practice, so far to mixed results.
What Akhavan has done with Cameron Post is to mine the smallest moments of levity from the resilience of the kids whose parents or guardians force them into these camps. The movie is wholly concerned with exploring the complicated inner turmoil that comes with having characteristics that some people in society demonize. On that front, the movie is a resounding success.
Set in 1993, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is based on Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 coming-of-age novel. Cameron is a high-school junior – she’s only 12 in the novel – whose parents have both died. She lives with her aunt Ruth, who sends her to God’s Promise, a gay conversion therapy center, when Cameron’s boyfriend finds her in the back seat of a car having sex with another girl during a homecoming dance.
The directors of God’s Promise are Reverend Rick and his sister, Dr. Lydia March, a psychiatrist. They maintain that through biblical principles, therapy, and reinforcement of “appropriate gender roles,” disciples – what they call their patients – can be “cured” of their SSAs – same sex attractions. Cameron learns from her roommate, Erin, that Lydia started the camp after her therapy techniques cured Rick of his SSAs. It’s important to note the difference between being cured of same sex attractions and being cured of homosexuality. At God’s Promise, there is no such thing as homosexuality, just sin. Same sex attractions are sinful, and they must be defeated to live a holy life.
The majority of the population – including a significant proportion who consider themselves religious – now think there is no stigma to being gay. Because of how much the culture has shifted in even the last 20 years, it’s tempting to laugh at ideas like sing-alongs of religious songs as a viable means to convert someone from being gay, as if such a thing were possible at all. There are still plenty of people, however, who take these methods seriously. In addition to the sing-alongs, they use religious shaming and guilt to make gay people reject their core identity.
So, Akhavan faced the tricky task of striking a balance between mocking these techniques and giving a thoughtful representation of the real harm they can do. It was probably no help to her that the culture-at-large has produced plenty of sarcastic, often insightful, satire aimed at these “pray the gay away” camps. The brilliant But I’m a Cheerleader – a 1999 film that was probably two decades ahead of its time – plays like a punk-rock version of Cameron Post, heightening and playing for ridiculous comedic effect the strategies these religious centers use to “de-convert” homosexuals.
The subtle, dry humor of Cameron Post comes from how these kids find ways to survive by bonding with each other as they try to get through this situation. Cameron makes friends early in the film with two other disciples who are just as skeptical about the effectiveness of God’s Promise’s treatment as she is. She starts hanging out with Jane and Adam, who grow and harvest their own marijuana in secret in the woods surrounding the campgrounds.
Jane was raised in a hippie-type parenting situation, but her new step-father has strict religious beliefs, so he sent her to the camp. Adam is an Indigenous teenager who celebrates a spirit within him that contains both the male and female gender. Because he has a relative who is running for political office, this aspect of Adam’s beliefs is seen as a liability. His family shipped him off to God’s Promise to keep him out of sight. The three form a bond; they find moments like group karaoke as an occasion over which to share pained, incredulous expressions.
The movie also gets comedic mileage out of an arts-and-crafts project the camp directors assign to the disciples. Reverend Rick and Dr. Lydia give each kid a drawing of an iceberg (with the tip just above the water, but the much bigger portion below), and tell them to write on it the factors in their lives that contribute to their SSAs. The movie then gives us brief cutaways to incidents the disciples describe in words on the icebergs. In one instance we see Erin, Cameron’s roommate, enjoying a football game with her dad, a pastime which the councilors tell her contributes to her “gender confusion.”
Characters like Erin and another girl at the camp, Helen, who genuinely believe that their homosexuality is wrong, provide the movie with its most heartbreaking moments. No matter what Cameron, Jane, and Adam must put up with, we get the sense that they’ll be okay. What is happening to them is still wrong, and they are put through emotional abuse, but these three are confident enough in themselves to know that there is nothing wrong with them. Erin and Helen don’t have the same quality and seeing them display an earnest desire to change their fundamental selves is emotionally devastating.
Cameron’s own self-assurance leads to both the movie’s strongest and weakest moments. A tragedy late in the film involving another disciple, Mark, whose father has rejected his request to come home when the current semester ends, acts as the catalyst for both scenes.
In the most effective moment in Cameron Post, Reverend Rick is explaining to Cameron what has happened to Mark. In her anger, she accuses Rick of having no idea what he’s doing. She thinks Rick and Lydia are making it all up as they go along, which is causing people to get hurt. Rick himself breaks down in response to Cameron’s accusation, which effectively acts as confirmation to what she’s said.
As nuanced as that scene is – due mostly to Chloë Grace Moretz and John Gallagher, Jr.’s beautiful, sensitive performances as Cameron and Rick – Akhavan and Frugiuele achieve just the opposite a few minutes later. When an investigator from a state agency questions Cameron about what happened to Mark, he wants to know if she feels safe at God’s Promise. She says she does, but when he asks if she trusts the staff, she says no.
Eventually the investigator asks if the staff is abusing any of the patients. Cameron says they aren’t being physically abused, but that they are being emotionally abused. The investigator asks her to elaborate, and Cameron’s response is a clumsy summation of the entire thesis of the film. How is it not emotional abuse to make someone hate who they are, she asks. It’s a much too on-the-nose moment in what is otherwise a subtle, evocative coming-of-age story about coming to terms with who you are, even when those around you can’t accept it.
That one flaw aside, The Miseducation of Cameron Post will stand in the future as a fascinating artifact. It will enlighten people who don’t remember a time when being gay was something that certain communities tried to reverse with prayer and “therapy.” That time may be 10, 20, or 100 years away, but it is coming, and this movie will act as an artistic representation of a tragic period in our history.
Why it got 4 stars:
- What The Miseducation of Cameron Post excels at is a quiet, understated tone throughout the entire movie. It's equal parts funny and moving, with an ending that is hopeful, but at the same time acknowledges the precarious situation kids like Cameron, Jane, and Adam are forced to navigate.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The first time we see Reverend Rick, he's playing his guitar and singing praise music for the disciples. It's a goofy moment you can't help chuckle at, but things turn more sinister in the next scene as he searches Cameron's bag upon arrival for contraband, and gives her a contract to sign detailing her expected behavior.
- Akhavan stages several dream sequences throughout the movie with incredible realism. One in particular faked me out, and I didn't realize until it was over that it was a dream.
- Erin represses her homosexual thoughts by exercising to a Christian workout video. It's called Blessercise, and it's every bit as magical as the name makes it sound.
- Aside from it's purpose, God's Promise could be any generic summer camp. It's located in a bucolic setting, but Akhavan seems to purposely avoid showing too much of the natural splendor surrounding the camp. She wants to focus on the ugliness happening in this beautiful setting. Numerous times during the movie, I had the thought that these kids could be making so many amazing memories in this place if it weren't for what the counselors were trying to do.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Nothing of note in this crowd. It was a small, quiet audience. Several people gave knowing chuckles throughout the movie, making me think they had some personal experience with what was happening on screen.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
No review next week. As you read this, I am counting down the minutes until I get on a plane headed for Colorado. I will be spending a week in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. No internet, no cell service. Just hiking, sleeping in, and relaxing. I'll be back with a new review on September 14th.