In 1993, two teenage girls sneak out of their high school prom to the parking lot where, under the dim glow of Friday night lights, they fumblingly caress each other in the backseat of a car. This precious expression of adolescent romance however is juxtaposed against a preceding shot pattern of closeups of nervous hair playing, the clutching of bibles and a stern voice proclaiming “what feels like fun is actually the enemy”. The two girls’ nascent exploration of their burgeoning sexuality is fatefully interrupted when they are discovered in flagrante by one of the girl’s boyfriends, leading to a swift shaming and exile. This tragic sequence opens The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the second feature by Desiree Akhavan, who has managed to cast off the shackling label of the more woke, Iranian Lena Dunham attached to her after the release of her first film, Appropriate Behavior (which she wrote, directed and starred in). While this film shares some DNA with Akhavan’s earlier feature in terms of their dealing with the social stigma of female sexuality amongst conservative communities, The Miseducation of Cameron Post presents an altogether more alarming context of intolerance and bigotry – it is surely destined to be rated as the feel-good film of the year by Mike Pence.
After her accidental outing, the eponymous Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) is transported by her pearl-clutching aunt to the remote treatment centre God’s Promise, a gay conversion camp run by chalk-and-cheese siblings, sensitive, guitar-strumming Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) and the Nurse Ratched-lite Dr Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle). Along with her fellow uniform-clad ‘disciples’, non-binary Bowie obsessive Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), and the lackadaisical Jane Fonda (American Honey breakout Sasha Lane), Cameron observes with wide-eyed bewilderment as she is told that homosexuality is not real, merely a personal sin of ‘gender confusion’. Via confessions, vision board collages, and cod Freudian psychoanalysis – using iceberg diagrams to chart the progression of their gender identity – the camp counsellors claim to bring these ‘fallen’ adolescents closer to God. Cameron, Adam, and Jane detachedly resign themselves to emotional abuse, waiting to be released and attempting to avoid giving in to self-destruction.
While The Miseducation of Cameron Post is coincidentally one of two films released in 2018 dealing with gay conversion therapy centres (the other, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased), this film should be championed for the powerful voice emerging from the screen. Akhavan’s screenplay, co-written with Cecilia Frugiuele and adapting Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 YA-novel, showcases a rapport and empathy with her young characters. There is a prevailing tendency amongst YA-adaptations that they are written by older men whose approximation of teen patois can often come across as fake and disingenuous; yet Akhavan succeeds in capturing a tone that, much like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, finds a balance between the sad and the sweet without downplaying or belittling the struggles faced by her young protagonists. Akhavan recognises that young people are not the fully-formed, pop-culture savvy, fashion models that Riverdale might project them as, but instead are sympathetically neurotic figures of real pathos; as Cameron admits, “I don’t think of myself as a homosexual. I don’t think of myself as anything”.
This natural yearning for an identity beyond labels collides with the aims of the God’s Promise camp, creating a quietly malignant atmosphere of oppression and emotional abuse as the disciples are “programmed to hate themselves”. Such an inducement of misery by religious bigots throws up many instances of heart-rending character development that have been hitherto under-explored in the coming-of-age genre. While topics of self-harm and mental health struggles are being afforded greater visibility in these types of films, The Miseducation of Cameron Post often generates distressingly incisive moments of reflection from young people who have been told that their joy is an infection to be cured (“I’m tired of feeling disgusted with myself”).
Moreover, the visualisation of this atmosphere of oppression has an astonishing effect. In one sequence, Cameron is attended to by her roommate Erin after a sexually provocative dream, leading to a spontaneous sexual tryst. Counterpointed with the tender, naturalistic expression of romance at the opening of the film, there is almost a generic overlap with the intensity of a horror film. As their panting increases in volume, the viewer becomes terrified at the prospect of their imminent discovery and swift punishment, so overreaching is the state of emotional terrorism at God’s Promise; effectively, their gasps for breath become akin to the horror film protagonist running for their lives from the murderous maniac. Yet, Akhavan and cinematographer Ashley Connor accomplish the opposite emotional register in their shot patterns. The concluding long take of the film patiently documents the trio in the back of a truck escaping God’s Promise and wistfully staring back at the receding road. The beguiling shot lingers in the memory for its sense of resolution and also ambiguity, conveying on the one hand, the licking of emotional and physical wounds, and on the other, the anticipation of a return to joy, happiness, companionship and a more tolerant future.