Film Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

A gay conversion camp provides the setting for this angst-ridden downer with its heart in the right place.
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Welcome to “God’s Promise,” a Christian that supposedly excels at gay conversion therapy. It’s where the guardians of The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s orphaned Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) send her when she is caught in the act of lesbian love with her high school BFF, Coley (Quinn Shephard). At the camp, Cameron encounters a bunch of misfit kids, all in varying states of depression and alienation, as well as the sinister, Mrs. Danvers-like overseer of the establishment, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). Using that familiar lethal weapon, Christianity, as her chief armament in her committed battle against same-sex coupling, Marsh’s mission is to almost literally beat the gay out of her hapless charges.

Based on a novel by Emily Danforth set in the early 1990s, director Desiree Akhavan’s film does not stint in depicting the gruesomeness of the whole de-gaying process, filled as it is with psychological torture, causing one of the kids to mutter, “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” The movie stands in stark contrast to its thematic predecessorBut I’m a Cheerleader!, which largely played its subject for laughs, a not-unwise approach considering its inherent absurdity.

Akhavan, on the other hand, is grimly serious and seems bent on making the ultimate misunderstood-teen film. The unrelenting gloom and oppressive atmosphere verge on the exploitative. The various kids’ heartbreaking pasts are trotted out for audience delectation like they’re song and dance skills at musical camp.  From the first scene, I spent a lot of time wondering which one would commit the inevitable suicide, providing both emotional climax and general wakeup call to anyone still standing. The inevitable, of course, does occur, and is more gruesome than it needs to be.

Cameron falls in with a small rebel clique who resist being altered in any way: Jane Fonda (the name is, sadly, correct, and she is played by Sasha Lane) and  Native American Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who gives out with the Two Spirits 101 instruction. Their scenes together have a natural good humor about them, culminating in an impromptu, raucous jam in the kitchen set to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”—a welcome respite from all the parental rejection, stern camp staff admonishments and general anguish.

Moretz is angelically pretty but bland, going through the motions of being understandably bereft and even angry without ever once truly moving you to empathy, despite her plight. Emily Skeggs, who was so memorable on Broadway in Fun Home, makes an affecting impression as young lesbian who wants to believe in the transformative powers of purity and prayer. Ehle seems to be having a grand old time playing a modern variant of a Gale Sondergaard role, but I wish Marin Ireland, as one of the camp’s instructors, had been given more to do, as I consider her the finest actress on the New York stage as a result of genius work in Marie Antoinette and Summer and Smoke.