Adults spend the rest of their lives trying to atone for the sins they committed as children.
That’s the irony and tragedy of religious life, according to “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” The film was directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan and is one of two releases this year to focus on the practice of gay conversion therapy. The other, which many people have and will continue to compare to “Cameron Post,” is Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased.” I haven’t seen it, but I’d wager that a more apt comparison in scope and tone is the 2012 indie classic “Short Term 12,” an intimate, funny, quietly devastating film about a group home for troubled teens.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is intimate, funny and quietly devastating, but it is not about a group home for troubled teens. It’s about an evangelical conversion camp called God’s Promise, and it’s for LGBT teenagers who have been forced there by parents and guardians, made to believe they have a sickness serious enough to warrant rehabilitation or, worse, rewiring. If the youth of “Short Term 12” have real emotional baggage to confront, then the youth of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” have the baggage thrust onto them, creating intense emotional disarray where there was once likely none at all.
This is certainly true of the titular character, played by Chloë Grace Moretz in perhaps her most vulnerable role to date. She approaches the part with a hushed intensity that occasionally spits flames but rightfully never explodes. Cameron is forced to go to God’s Promise after she’s caught having sex with a girl from Sunday school on prom night. Her parents being dead, Cameron’s ultra-conservative aunt calls the shots — and Cameron’s homosexuality is deemed unacceptable.
Cameron is bombarded with ideas of what she could be if she just cooperates with the program. “Don’t you want to have a family someday?” her aunt tearfully asks over the phone, as if she couldn’t without therapy. “You confused a desire to be like her with a desire to be with her,” a campmate tells Cameron of her love for the girl back home. Even for a strong-minded individual, the forced introspection and psychoanalysis can quickly become too much.
The program is designed to make Cameron reevaluate everything she knows about herself, and this falls in line with the film’s mission: to depict conversion therapy accurately, while retaining a sense of hope and identity among those enduring it. Cameron wants to reject all the sneaky conversion tactics, but the story is equally truthful when she crumples under pressure. “I don’t think of myself as a homosexual,” she tells Lydia, the director of God’s Promise. “I really don’t think of myself as anything.”
It’s impossible to voice how much The Miseducation of Cameron Post means to me.
Cameron gave me the representation I didn’t even know I needed in the most perfect way. It deals with some of the heaviest shit, but is still ultimately hopeful.
This book means everything to me. pic.twitter.com/qCII0XpQ1B
— ? k a v ? (@xreadingsolacex) September 3, 2018
Other characters in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” aren’t as lucky. Cameron hopes that she’ll eventually leave God’s Promise unscathed, but most of her peers hope they’ll leave cured. Those characters, such as Cameron’s roommate, Erin, or the young man named Mark, maintain hope that is rooted in tragedy. They repress their desires and beat themselves up over transgressions, but conversion is the only solution that’s been offered to them for an ailment that doesn’t exist. They hope for closure they’ll never get, acceptance they have to lie for and love they won’t really want.
Of these supporting players, the one I was most fascinated by was God’s Promise staff member Rick, played thoughtfully by John Gallagher Jr. It’s curious to see an actor choose roles informed by his previous ones: Gallagher played a similar role as group home supervisor in the aforementioned “Short Term 12,” and he originated the role of sexually repressed Moritz Stiefel in the musical “Spring Awakening.” Both are relevant to his turn as Rick, who struggled with his homosexuality until he was apparently “cured” by Lydia.
My main criticism of the film is that it never digs deep enough into its supporting characters, and Rick is no exception, but Gallagher puts a lot into the character’s unspoken pain. He stands out in a film with a phenomenal lead actress — no easy feat. In fact, these performances complement each other by demonstrating alternate paths toward reclaiming identity.
Rick is the poster boy for reformed “converts,” and Cameron regards him with a familiar mix of pity and anger. “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” she seethes after tragedy strikes God’s Promise. “You’re just making it up as you go along.” In confronting someone who has lost himself completely — or has tried to — Cameron finally understands that she has no choice but to take her fate into her own hands: “I’m tired of being disgusted with myself.”
After all, what else is there to do when the people responsible for your care are incapable, some of them monstrous and entirely unwilling to see the repercussions of their abuse? Cameron, along with her friends Jane and Adam (played by the wonderful but underused Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck), weigh their options to see what would be worse: more karaoke nights at God’s Promise or living alone on the streets? As Jane and Adam point out, it’s not nearly as easy a choice as it might seem.
Even with the comfort of food and shelter, though, God’s Promise is still a nightmare. The therapy process likens homosexuality to an iceberg. The hunk of ice above the water’s surface signifies gayness, but beneath the surface it extends into a much larger mass — supposedly a representation of underlying trauma, all of which “leads” to being gay. Disciples of God’s Promise, as they’re called, are told to search deep inside for any past events or parts of their former lifestyle that might have resulted in their homosexuality.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” understands how harmful it is to force young people to second-guess everything they’ve done in their lives. It strikes the perfect balance between mocking the absurdity of the exercise and being gentle with the people who take it seriously; what kind of film would this be, after all, if it antagonized queer kids who have been brainwashed into believing they have something wrong with them? Programming people to hate themselves is emotional abuse, as Cameron insists in the third act.
It’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t waste time trying to absolve its antagonists or the conversion process. It also doesn’t spin the overdone, idealistic narrative of final act enlightenment. Cameron has nothing to preach to her peers; she cannot help them see the light unless they’re willing to. She’s not a messiah, not a Randle McMurphy nor a Todd Anderson. There’s no heroic call for reform, no eleventh hour monologue urging everyone to stand up and fight for what’s right. Cameron knows she must learn to help herself before she can help others.
“You are at an age where you are especially vulnerable to evil,” a teacher tells Cameron and her schoolmates at the beginning of the film. By the time the credits role, you’ll wonder whose evil is doing the most damage. With its conclusion, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” amends its opening statement: Adulthood is spent atoning for childhood sin, but for some, childhood is spent struggling with the sins of reckless adults.