“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is a humble, poignant, and extremely touching coming-of-age drama that unfolds like a seriocomic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” set at a gay conversion camp for Christian teens circa 1993. Complete with Jennifer Ehle as an indomitable riff on Nurse Ratched, the movie shears Emily M. Danforth’s massive YA novel of the same name down to a sensitive film that cuts right to the heart of the matter. Played by a beautifully understated and unsure Chloë Grace Moretz, Cameron Post is an orphaned high school junior who develops some very biblical — and blessedly mutual — feelings for a girl she meets at Sunday school (“Blame” director Quinn Shephard).
It’s all innocent fun and fingering until someone finds Cameron and her friend in the backseat of a car on prom night. That’s all it takes for Cameron’s evangelical aunt to ship her off to God’s Promise, a wooded retreat where she can pray the gay away. Because nothing makes it easier for a hormonal teenager to purge themselves of queer desire than surrounding them with a dozen other kids who are all trying to do the same. Good thinking, Jesus freaks.
But “Miseducation” is far from the horny romp that lesser movies have conditioned us to expect from a premise like that, the film cleaving much closer to “Short Term 12” than “But I’m a Cheerleader!” (no disrespect to the latter, which arrives at similar ends via wildly different means). Directed by Desiree Akhavan with all the wit and twice the tenderness she brought to the brilliant “Appropriate Behavior” — a semi-autobiographical story that chronicled her own process of coming out — this unforced adaptation is told with the same furrowed concern that Cameron brings to God’s Promise.
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Arriving at the upstate retreat with nothing but a healthy skepticism and a haircut that makes her look like an X-Men Hillary Clinton, Cameron is indoctrinated into a place where people are effectively programmed to hate themselves. And judging by the other kids she meet (several of whom aren’t afforded the screen time they could use), the faculty is doing a pretty decent job of making America great again. Choir singer Helen Showalter (Melanie Ehrlich, no relation to this critic) has been convinced that it wasn’t a girl’s body she was lusting after, but rather her perfect pitch. Erin (Emily Skeggs) has been taught that her same-sex attraction is a sinful byproduct of all the sports she watched with her dad, the Minnesota Vikings supposedly instilling her with a deep sense of “gender confusion” that isn’t helped by the woman in the “Blessercize” workout video she pantomimes every day (to reiterate: this is a Desiree Akhavan joint, and so you’re never far from a good joke).
Not all of the disciples are buying in to the rhetoric, however. The first person Cameron meets is an amputee named Jane Fonda (“American Honey” breakout Sasha Lane) who hides weed in her prosthetic leg and smokes it with her Lakota friend Adam (Forrest Goodluck) on their daily hikes. Mark (Owen Campbell) is stuck somewhere in the middle, eager to change but secretly convinced that he can’t. He’s not alone.
Part of what makes this such an affecting story is how delicately Akhavan and co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele establish that all of the kids want to change. God’s Promise uses shame to bludgeon its young boarders into submission, and it’s a super effective weapon; “I’m tired of feeling disgusted with myself” Cameron eventually laments, and it’s hard to blame her. She may not be a person of faith, but you don’t have to believe in Jesus to feel like he doesn’t believe in you.
To an extent, it’s a feeling that all teenagers (or former teenagers) can appreciate. There’s tremendous risk in trying to make a movie that caters equally to the people it’s about and the people it’s not — that functions as both a mirror and a window — and while this critic can only speak to half of that equation, “Miseducation” clearly recognizes that almost every kid feels like some kind of freak, even though only some of them are dehumanized for being different. All of us ultimately have to decide for ourselves what’s wrong and what’s right.
Akhavan’s wide compositions and innocuously searing long-takes provide plenty of room for her characters to feel things out, every moment of silence and square inch of negative space inviting them to question if they should take God’s Promise at its word. If the kids evoke John Hughes, their environment reeks of Todd Haynes.
That’s especially true for Reverend Rick, the mustached counselor who’s guiding his disciples through the same curriculum that once straightened him out. Played by a heartbreaking John Gallagher Jr., Rick teaches these kids a truth that he sincerely wants to believe, but desire isn’t always enough (though it’s often too much). The empathy this film reserves for him in its last act is extraordinary; even his sister, the merciless Dr. Lydia Marsh (Ehle), has some room for redemption. Maybe. If you squint.
But Akhavan compels you to squint. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is a small movie, far too modest and knowing to surrender to melodrama and apply cosmetic fixes to deep wounds (the film’s one big speech is its least convincing scene), but it beautifully articulates the need for young people to realize the validity of who they are, and even more beautifully crystalizes the moment when that starts to happen. In other words, this movie is Mike Pence’s worst nightmare, and it’s just as needed now as it might have been in 1993. “We’re trying to undo the things we did at your age,” says Cameron’s Bible study teacher, but adults don’t always have all the answers. Sometimes they don’t even have the right questions.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.