The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a 2018 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, is a drama about gay conversion therapy for teenagers. When Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) is caught on prom night having sex with another girl, she’s immediately shipped off to God’s Promise, a rural treatment center run by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and the “successfully treated” Rev. Rick (John Gallagher Jr.). The gravity of Cameron’s situation quickly sets in: no teenager leaves the center until they are “cured” of their homosexuality. The treatment is based on real conversion theory; it proclaims that no one is gay, and a person is only healed when they “realign with the truth” of their heterosexuality. Cameron is required to attend private and group therapy with Dr. Marsh, who uses dubious techniques to convince the young people that their same-sex attraction is a physiological problem that can be fixed. Cameron gravitates towards two outliers, Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Feather (Forrest Goodluck), while she struggles with the complexities of her situation. After a tragic night at the center, the misfit trio make a decision that alters the course of their lives.
Adapted by Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) from the acclaimed novel of the same name, The Miseducation of Cameron Post takes a gentle, naturalistic approach to the story, relying on an accurate portrayal of the subject matter to make its own commentary. Its “fly-on-the-wall” camera work portrays the daily workings of a gay conversion center, with Cameron’s journey guiding the film forward, posing clear questions about the cost of religious and psychological inference into sexual orientation. Cameron Post in some ways also plays out like a thriller, delving briefly into the shady issue of review and regulation boards investigating serious incidents at the center , an assignment being run only by people who believe in conversion therapy.
Akavan wisely steers clear of theatrics that don’t feel grounded in authenticity. Cameron Post captures people at a critical moment in life; the stage which sees a frantic desire and need to please adults, be successful students, is coupled with the new desire to decide one’s own life. In one scene, a young girl sings “Where Does My Heart Beat Now?” for karaoke night, the camera resting on the desolate misery of her audience. Rev. Rick displays his hetero recovery with quiet desperation. Even Dr. Marsh is no Nurse Ratchet — her good-natured, overly concerned assurance in her spiritual mission makes her actually more terrifying. This is a break-out role for Chloe Grace Moretz, who captures the depth of Cameron’s suffering in an understated, rich performance. It’s also a very funny film, often in the subversive ways, as the kids make it through their stay. A scene that sees Adam instructing Cameron on the images to put on her vision board in art therapy to make her seem more heterosexual (lots of cats and horses) is a favorite. It also has fun with the true irony of boarding gay teenagers alone in private rooms together, often the first time these young people are even meeting other gay kids, capturing affectionately the failing of even the best students once the lights go out.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is aptly titled, clearly playing on a double meaning. On one hand, the practice of teaching teenagers to hate themselves has dire consequences. Well-meaning teachers who believe a happy life is only a matter of the right religious education can be very dangerous. On the other hand, being the misfit who learns “all the wrong things” in such an environment is often the one who retains sanity and wholeness. At a time in their lives when they are deciding what’s true and who they want to be, this film refreshingly asserts that teenagers are often much smarter about who they are and what’s really happening then they are given credit for. Just when it seems that these kids are done for, they surprise everyone. This is a beautiful, triumphant film that celebrates the intelligence and power of the human spirit, while not diminishing the terrible cost of trying to crush it.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs April 18 to April 29. Visit the official Tribeca Film Festival website for more info.