The Miseducation Of Cameron Post ****
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jnr., Sasha Luck, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle, Owen Campbell, Emily Skeggs
Director: Desiree Akhavan
You wait all decade for a good movie to come along about a gay conversion camp and then two come along at once! It’s been two decades since the sublime comedy But I’m A Cheerleader gave an irreverent glimpse of the camps in Bible-Belt America where teens are sent to be “cured” of the afflictions of their sexual and gender identities and since, nothing else of any note has troubled the topic (and yes, I’m including I Am Michael in that “nothing of note” category). This year sees the long-awaited Boy Erased, but also the movie adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation Of Cameron Post by the brilliant director Desiree Akhavan, whose first movie Appropriate Behaviour was a triumph of LGBT filmmaking in 2014.
Cameron (Moretz) is discovered kissing a girl by her supposed boyfriend. Before she can understand what’s happening to her, she is packed off to God’s Promise, a camp for young LGBT people whose mission is to set her back on the “right path” (I’m afraid this review is going to be FULL of inverted commas, so you’ll have to bear with me…). There she meets “ex-gay” Reverend Rick (Gallagher Jnr.) and the uncomfortably stoic Dr Lydia (Ehle), who together run an oppressive regime of obsessive worship and insistence of self-hatred. They refuse to accept that homosexuality even exists, simply labelling it a “sin”. “You don’t see drug addicts marching in a parade, do you?” asks the doctor in one of their many cruel “therapy” sessions together, in which all “disciples” must identify the supposed reasons for their dysfunctional gender identity and add them to a diagram of an iceberg, representing SSA (same-sex attraction) above the surface of the water, with everything else below.
Most other “disciples” buy into the camp’s intention of “helping them”, including Cameron’s room-mate Erin (Skeggs), who is ready to snitch on her as soon as she strays from “virtue” and Mark (Campbell), who will do what’s required to be sent home. Luckily, Cameron meets Adam (Goodluck) and Jane Fonda (Luck) – that’s her actual name… or is it? – two similar inmates, who resist the programme in quiet acts of rebellion away from the eyes of their superiors. Together, they support each other as it becomes increasingly clear that those in charge don’t have a clue what they’re doing.
My biggest criticism of the novel was how long it took to get Cameron to the camp, but luckily the narrative dispenses with the book’s long-winded pre-amble and gets her there within two scenes, managing to summarise all the back-story with a concise introduction and well-placed dream sequences. The direction here is very tight; while narratively well-paced, the atmosphere of teenage helplessness is not diluted and Akhavan does not shy away from allowing characters space to breathe, choosing long-shots of a character’s face over long sequences of dialogue. This is greatly effective because the economy of the plot and camerawork makes the film feel succinct and well-populated by well-drawn characters.
The timing of the film’s release is probably going to be its down-fall, unfortunately. It created notable ripples after its showings at Sundance earlier this year, eventually winning the Grand Jury Prize. However, in finding cinema release mere months before Boy Erased, it can’t help but be overshadowed by Joel Edgerton’s awards juggernaut that will surely be the LGBT film on the radar of the Academy next year. You can’t help but wonder how the two will fare side by side, but this is a very strong offering from a director clearly on the rise, helped by a brilliantly terse script, written and adapted by Cecilia Frugiuele and Akhavan.
The film is set in the mid-90s and couldn’t be further from the high-camp of But I’m A Cheerleader. This is Middle America; forested, log-cabins, denim. The “disciples” are schooled, but their brain-washing to the “right path” is what comes at the top of the agenda. Gathering numerous teenage homosexuals in the same place is, of course, a recipe for rough-and-tumbles off the band-wagon together, but these inevitable “missteps” are fuelled by self-loathing, not campy innuendo. The regime is headed by tyrannical adults yes, but really it is propelled by the inner self-hatred of its inmates. The collective want to change is what allows these leaders to ladle out the camp’s abuse. In a late scene, Cameron asks what else you could call a camp that tries to get people to hate themselves but emotional abuse, but because they have slapped a label of doing “God’s work”, their protestations are overlooked.
The whole film revolves around a very capable performance from the great Chloë Grace Moretz. Now that she’s become teenage tabloid fodder, it’s easy to forget just how magnetic a performer she has been in films like Kick Ass. This is a tour-de-force for her, giving a very relatable performance as a quietly rebellious teenager whose rebellion comes simply from wanting to have the rights she should have as a human being. Without her magnetic performance, the film could have come apart at the scenes. But while Moretz is at her best, this really is the Akhavan show, whose work here is accomplished, measured and rock-steady.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.