FILM REVIEW – THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. With Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr., Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle. Written by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele. Directed by Desiree Akhavan. Unrated, but contains profanity, drug use, and sexual situations. 91 minutes.
There’s a gentleness to writer-director Desiree Akhavan’s THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST that comes as something of a surprise given its subject matter. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this adaptation of Emily Danforth’s 2012 novel is set during the mid-1990s. But besides a few Breeders cassette tapes and Clinton-Gore bumper-stickers glimpsed in the background it could have taken place last weekend, especially considering our current Vice President’s fondness for the gay conversion camps depicted herein.
Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the title character, who gets busted making out with the prom queen and finds herself shipped off to God’s Promise, a rural getaway somewhere out in the middle of nowhere that runs on junk psychology, cherry-picked Bible quotes, and shame. Akhavan’s astutely assured 2015 debut “Appropriate Behavior” starred the filmmaker as a bisexual who keeps trying to come out to a traditional Iranian immigrant family exercising amusingly escalating feats of denial to pretend they don’t notice. But I guess it could’ve been worse, as they could have sent her away to be “cured” like Cameron.
It’s barbaric really, teaching children to hate themselves for their natural desires, and no wonder this sham conversion therapy so often leads to suicides by those tricked into taking it seriously. But “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” for the most part steers away from this inherent horror. Cam seems to have a pretty good head on her shoulders and immediately finds a fine support system in a pothead hippie chick actually named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane of “American Honey”) and rebellious longhair Adam (Forrest Goodluck) who’s so deadpan he occasionally needs to assure people that this is his regular speaking voice.
The kids smoke weed, roll their eyes, and try to get through the daily humiliations inflicted by Jennifer Ehle’s Dr. Lydia Marsh, who became a star in the evangelical community after allegedly “de-gaying” her brother Rick, heartbreakingly played by John Gallagher Jr. with a bushy mustache and pleading eyes. Early scenes hint at Marsh possibly being positioned as a Nurse Ratched figure for our “Cuckoo’s Nest” kids, but Adam deflates her quickly with his description, “she’s like having your own Disney villain who won’t let you jerk off.”
Enduring bed-checks and “Blessercise” workout videos, Cam and the crew muddle their way through the days as it becomes increasingly obvious the grown-ups at God’s Promise haven’t a blessed idea what they’re doing. Moretz is a bit too calm and self-possessed to sell the screenplay’s occasional pangs of doubt. Indeed, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” works better as an aspirational depiction of kids resilient enough to look past the short-sighted hangups of the adults in their lives who are currently calling the shots. These are the kind of characters who are going to mean a lot to young people stuck in similar situations.
“Appropriate Behavior” announced Akhavan as a filmmaker who isn’t afraid of sex, and the trysts in “Cameron Post” pack a startlingly genuine heat. Yet there’s nothing sleazy about these scenes, which in their awkward, exploratory intimacy ring far truer than any portrayals of teenage sexuality I’ve seen in ages. They feel perfectly natural, despite what Dr. Marsh might say.
If anything, our protagonists may be a little too cool for the movie’s own good, at least in the dramatic department. It’s telling that a central trauma happens to a peripheral character and that the guy who has lingered most in my mind since Sundance is hapless Pastor Rick. Gallagher Jr. lays on the doofy charm, but there’s a pathetic desperation in his need to believe that he’s licked this whole homosexuality thing. I’m haunted by his final scene, obliviously slurping cereal with no clue how much he’s pitied by all around him. In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” we see that the kids are gonna be alright, it’s the rest of us who need to get it together.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.