In dozens of US states, and in the stated beliefs of the current Vice President, the practice of “conversion therapy” continues to this day in an attempt to rid individuals of their same sex attractions through a combination of prayer and discussion. It’s perhaps due to the appalling fact that these practices continue that a subtlety-free work like The Miseducation of Cameron Post still finds potency by bringing to fore discussions about both the efficacy and ethics of such work.
The film is set in the early 1990s, a time when acceptance of homosexuality in youth was far less common than it is now. We meet Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), a cherubic teen who takes time away from her prom date to be fondled by the prom queen in the back of the car. When she is discovered by her sobbing beau she’s whisked away to a camp called God’s Promise run by a terse Doctor Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her musically inclined brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.).
Cameron meets her motley crew of fellow conversionees, including a quiet Native boy named Adam (Forrest Goodluck), a bold girl coincidentally named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Erin (Emily Skeggs), whose love of sports has in her mind led towards temptation towards tomboyness. The fellow campers/inmates undergo sessions where they detail on iceberg diagrams what lies beneath the surface that’s leading them astray, attempting to come to terms with what’s described as sin in order to be able to re-enter society “cured” of such supposedly unnatural behaviours.
The setup is fine, and interaction between all the characters entertaining, yet the film doesn’t quite know where to go in the end, as aimless as the sessions shown on screen. Yes, there’s drama in some offscreen moments of self-mutilation, but throughout it feels as if even within the confines of such a rigid system meant to truly shift the perspective of the participants nobody really seems to know what they’re doing.
It’s this haphazard way that Desiree Akhavan’s film unfolds that really undermines the work, feeling more floundering than it should be as harder questions give way to moments of lingering shots of her 20-something year-old actors heading out into existentially uncertain directions while leaving behind a broken system that seems more amateur and misguided than barbaric.
Then again, this aspect is also part of the film’s accessibility, allowing audiences to more comfortably accept that it’s with good intentions that such work is being accomplished. Reverend Rick’s own journey is brought up, and the self-blindness to his own story gives him some empathy. He talks of the supposed “miracle” of two fellow members of his previous congregation that came in to save him at the local gay bar when they saw his car outside, rather than the far greater likelihood that they were there to hook up themselves only to run into a witness they could rat out. This makes Rick’s story perhaps the most tragic, as he’s lying to himself while also encouraging others to do so, and may have made for a far more interesting work if it focussed on that story instead of the teens.
Still, we’re to look at what the film is, not what it could be, and overall it feels satisfactory if hardly deep in its look into the lives of these young characters. You only need to go back to last year’s To The Bone to see a similar tale of young people bonding over a shared experience of being holed up to work on problems. There the story was eating disorders, a mental disorder truly in need of therapy, but even in that circumstance Marti Noxon showed some of the darker aspects of being cooped up no matter the intent of those in charge of their wards. Akhavan’s tale, meanwhile, makes God’s Plan seem almost bucolic, and it’s clear based on the closing act that restrictions on movement hardly makes it the stuff of some penal colony.
In some ways, then, the horror of such a place for those struggling with their sexuality in the face of societal expectations is softened, the hard edged rounded off to make for a film that celebrates the bonding of like-minded friends and downplays the more insidious aspects of these programmes. With its aimless ending that attempts to convey ambivalence and simply comes across as a tale that’s run out of gas, it’s as if not much of what took place truly was so vile.
Yet, again, this flippancy comes from a space where the acceptance for LGBT youth to live their lives the way they wish is baked in. For millions this remains a struggle, and if anything finding some charismatic on-screen versions of themselves coming to terms with their own battles with conformity may absolutely serve a social good far beyond the efficacy of the film’s narrative. That doesn’t take away the feeling that film isn’t much more than an after-school special or Lifetime flick, with teary and heartfelt moments littered throughout and a message of resilience hammered atop. It’s only thanks to the fine takes by Moretz and co. that the film feels more than a maudlin thing, the ensemble elevating some of the schmaltz into moments of real dramatic effectiveness.
If there’s any justice a tale like The Miseducation of Cameron Post will in time feel even more archaic, some distant reminder of how people, even with good intentions, floundered aimlessly in an attempt to snuff out some of the deepest aspects of the adolescents in their charge. For some this will continue to be a wakeup call, a way to rally for such misguided messaging to continue. Yet the film’s lack of real bite and meandering conclusion undermines whatever real power it has as a standalone work. It may do well for general public discourse, but it’s hard to see how this will find and audience save for those who already feel this is a practice that should be left in the dustbins of history.