Kindness is a weapon wielded by adults in Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Compassion is never straightforward, but always insidious, always offered immediately before a barrage of guilt. No parent or guardian ever says the word “homophobia,” but that’s because everyone is already practicing it. It’s already been decided. To be a woman loving a woman or to be a man loving a man is unequivocally an immoral act, and that makes you a sinner — and sinners need to be saved, by any means necessary.
Adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 novel by Akhavan, who directed and co-wrote the film (and whose 2014 debut Appropriate Behavior dealt with similar themes, of a bisexual Iranian-American woman hiding her sexual identity from her family), The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a portrait of the teens whose souls are being claimed, and abused, by those adults, by the people who earnestly say things like “There’s no such thing as homosexuality … would you let drug addicts throw parades for themselves?” and “I’m doing this because I love you.” There are layers of manipulation and deceit and it’s all allegedly well-intentioned, and it would be almost impossible to watch if not for the teenagers who refuse to submit. It’s the spirit of those children that is the real story in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and it’s their strength and their hope that carries the film forward, that makes watching it an honor to those teenagers — the ones who survived the indoctrination, the guilt, and the abandonment from people who were supposed to protect them.
The film, set in 1993, focuses on high school senior Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz, doing career-best work here that makes you forget missteps like The 5th Wave and If I Stay), who is being raised by her aunt after her parents died in a car accident years before. She goes to Bible study class, she plays high school sports, she has a boyfriend — and the careful world of “normalcy” she’s built for herself is blown up when she’s discovered having sex with her female best friend in the back of a car on prom night. Practically immediately, without asking Cam what she wants or how she feels, her conservative aunt sends her to the conversion camp God’s Promise. In the middle of nowhere, the camp is full of teens like Cameron, sent there by family members to cure them of “SSA,” or “same-sex attraction.”
The people in charge of that brain-washing are Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), the kind of guy who softly strums an acoustic guitar while he sings songs about your sins, and Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle), who uses her scientific training to forcefully tell the teens that their homosexual feelings aren’t real, that all of their problems can be traced to “gender confusion,” that everything the teens do will be judged because “there’s no hiding from God.” One of Cam’s new friends Adam Red Eagle (the wonderful Forrest Goodluck, who you may recognize from playing Leo’s son in The Revenant), sent to the camp by his politically aspirational father who refuses to accept Adam’s identity as Lakotan two-spirit, describes Lydia as a “Disney villain [who] won’t let you jack off.” It’s a hilarious description for a maniacal figure who traffics in traumatizing children and telling them she’s curing them, but the movie doesn’t back away from how Lydia is supported and enabled by systems of fellow adults who would rather endanger children than upend the status quo.
But while the omnipresent threat of Lydia is effective in capturing the horrifying world of these religious camps, The Miseducation of Cameron Post comes to life because Cam, Adam, and Jane Fonda (the magnetic Sasha Lane, of American Honey), because of how these teenagers bond together in the face of such stifling identity erasure. Moretz nails the unsureness of her character, of a young woman who knows instinctively that her feelings for her best friend were real but who can’t quite understand why so many other people would abhor that so much, and a phone call between her and her aunt toward the end of the film is colossally painful but a clear turning point, the kind of moment that crystallizes who a person becomes. And the film extends that generosity to nearly all of its teen characters, providing them each with a life before the camp and interiority while they’re there; you understand why some of them would invest so desperately into the camp’s promises while others would feel so deeply betrayed.
“Maybe you’re supposed to feel disgusted by yourself when you’re a teenager,” Cam says to Lydia, and the intent of The Miseducation of Cameron Post is captured perfectly in that line — it’s a defense of the spontaneity of youth, of the pureness of young love, of the validity of feelings that are so hated by people who want to destroy them instead of accept them. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a love letter to the kids who needed it the most, and its final image, which Akhavan lets her camera linger on, is profoundly weighty despite total silence. No one should have to apologize for who they love, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a fierce attack on anyone who would tell you different.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post opens in wide release throughout the U.S. this weekend.
Image sources (in order of posting): Film Rise, Film Rise, Film Rise