Director: Desiree Akhavan
15 | 1h 30min | Drama, Romance | 31 August 2018 (UK)
Playing Sundance London 2018
Writer/director Desiree Akhavan, who’s Appropriate Behavior I fell hard for back in 2014, returns to treat the grim and morally toxic subject of gay conversation therapy centres with a refreshing and winning lightness of touch, deep empathy for all the characters, and a deliciously dark sense of irony. Akhavan and co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele are here adapting Emily Danforth’s acclaimed eponymous coming-of-age novel, which I’ve never read, so I don’t know to the extent to which the tone has simply been transposed over. But I was won over by the whole approach of this confident sophomore feature pretty early on, from the witty, frank but also very tender script to the great casting and performances.
Chloë Grace Moretz plays the titular Cameron Post, Moretz being a good casting choice if you want to present a picture postcard of the blonde, pretty, all-around perfect high school girl, and her performance is the most nuanced I’ve seen from her. Teen Cameron is in trouble right from the get-go. It is 1993 and Cameron, whose family are deeply religious, has been caught in the middle of heavy foreplay with another girl from the neighbourhood in the back seat of a car on prom night. In short order, we see Cameron quickly shipped off to a conversion therapy center that treats teens struggling with “SSA”, AKA same-sex attraction, just one of the many peppy acronyms and mantras the centre likes to soothe its ‘visitors’ with.
Right away we are invited to cringe at the violations of privacy and the morally twisted ideology that underpin this entire concept, as well as the endless banalities. In the dorm room, as the centre’s deputy Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) rummages through her backpack and confiscates her Breeders cassette, Cameron has to sign a ‘commitment’ paper; a veneer of voluntariness to give cover to this absurd endeavour. Of course, there is a gargantuan, hilarious irony underpinning (and undermining) the entire concept of the camp: putting a bunch of hormone-addled teens together means they have a ready-made gay community within spitting distance. Here, gay sex can happen probably much more easily than in the outside world. None of the adults running the place seem to realise this. Or maybe they do, but need to keep a smile on their faces to sell the message that persistence and abstinence will get you to the higher ground.
And yet, even as we unite with Cameron (as well as laugh heartily) as she chafes against the outlandish discipline, recoils from the dubious ‘de-gaying’ methods, and stares mouth agape at the super-earnest Christian rock concerts the centre takes its inmates to, we aren’t steered towards seeing the camp staff or the other youths who have internalised the self-hate as clear antagonists. In fact, this community is a place where Cameron can finally find peers in roughly the same boat as her, and having authority figures to rally against doesn’t hurt when it comes to bonding. The Miseducation of Cameron Post actually starts hitting some of the same affirming, uplifting notes a straight ‘summer camp’ movie might. Clearly a bit lost due to her own burgeoning sexuality and the weird situation she has fallen into, Cameron teams up with the kids who know how to bend the rules: Adam (Forrest Goodluck), and a girl who goes by the name ‘Jane Fonda’ (Sasha Lane, who fulfils the promise she showed in 2015s American Honey here with a charmingly brash performance). They’re the ones who sneak off to smoke pot on the woodland hikes, which are one of the few activities where males and females can head off together as it is a ‘gender neutral’ activity that won’t risk triggering any gayness. Jane hides her pot in her wooden prosthetic leg, just one of the many tricks she’s learned to keep screwing the system over, even if she sees outright escape (which would actually be pretty easy) as pointless as she will just end up back here again, same as all of them. They are teens, they have no resources.
Cameron’s perky roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a football fanatic and also extremely devoted to finding Christian salvation even as she clearly shows sexual attraction towards Cameron, could easily have been the focus of either gags or contempt in a different movie. But she gets treated with equal compassion. I found her arc frankly heartbreaking, though the film’s final act reveals a even more sorrowful fate for one of the other, more troubled teens, which brings the cost of this ‘therapy’ into a necessary, clearer focus. Even the adult staff aren’t treated as villains. Jennifer Ehle’s Dr. Marsh might have the shine of a true believer in her eyes, but her deputy Reverend Rick (who’s story about how he was ‘saved’ by two men who followed him into a gay bar leads to plenty of derisive snorting from Jane, Adam and Cameron given what probably in fact went down that night in addition to the ‘salvation’) betrays flashes of uncertainty to Cameron in private about what he is really trying to achieve here, as well his deep upset at the personal cost. None of the staff are outwardly cruel even if their interpretation of their beliefs is, they are just persistent and annoyingly upbeat, with rebellion met with an arm around the shoulder or a pleasant-sounding homily. You could argue though that this approach is even more insidious; winning a teen over by making them think their pastoral care is what is really the focus here, instead of pushing them to loathe or deny their way out of being gay.
Akhavan has said that she had no queer John Hughes movies when she grew up, and that’s a great sentiment to keep in mind when watching this film, even if I don’t think the comparisons are entirely apt. We are not blessed with a huge amount of quality gay teen films that are tender, witty, explicit and complex. Thanks to Akhavan, that number has increased.