Perhaps it goes without saying, but The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on the YA novel of the same name, isn’t your average coming of age film. Still, that doesn’t stop director Desiree Akhavan from slyly playing with the expectations of the genre from the very start. Miseducation begins at what is usually the climax of other teen movies – prom. Akhavan takes her time ruminating in the rituals that have been immortalized in film for decades: a face of makeup painted by a guardian, awkward elbow-bumping on the way to prom photo poses. But while most prom scenes are characterized by dramatic professions of love and brave romantic gestures, Miseducation’s school dance magic is squashed out by stigma. After politely avoiding their dates for the evening, the titular Cameron (Chloe Moretz) and her would-be girlfriend Coley (Quinn Shephard) take the opportunity to retreat to the parking lot and hook up in secret. That is, until Cameron’s date rips open the car door and her life is forcibly upended, as she finds herself unwillingly outed in front of her entire small town in one gut-wrenching moment.
It’s no time before Cameron is ripped from her family, her friends and from Coley, and brought to God’s Promise, a remote gay conversion camp on the edge of the Montana wilderness. Still, the camp doesn’t immediately reveal the darkness at its center. Greeted by Polaroid-toting cool girl Jane (Sasha Lane), Cameron’s brought to meet the head of God’s Promise, the unassuming and decidedly bashful Reverend Rick (an impeccable John Gallagher Jr.). Rick, we’re told, successfully underwent conversion therapy years ago after struggling with SSA (that’s “same sex attraction”) and is living life as a happy and heterosexual man. Now, his sister Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) who is rumored to have helped him “overcome” his attractions, serves as the camp’s conversion guru.
Of course, the camp is a fundamentally sinister place, one that slowly weakens the attendees’ sense of self through practices of public humiliation and insistent vitriol that easily qualifies as brainwashing. God’s Promise, for all its resemblance to a summer camp from anyone’s youth, is a place of insidious control: campers’ communication to the outside world is heavily monitored, masturbatory habits are openly policed, even listening to the radio becomes unlawful within the bounds of the camp. It’s the kind of emotional abuse that’s even harder to watch than the over-the-top mistreatment – because it feels so very, very real.
Cameron Post’s true strength is that amidst all the darkness, Akhavan never paints any of the players as villains. Rick is a man still struggling and refusing to come to terms with his sexuality, Cameron’s sports-loving optimistic roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) is just a teen desperate to believe she’s straight, even Dr. Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) can’t be called a villain in the traditional sense. Stern and misguided, Ahkavan is careful to keep her nuanced, refusing to let the viewer understand any individual in the film as something other than simply human, imperfect and self-hating.
It’s worth noting too that Moretz, who notably pulled out of a few promising projects in the name of reassessing who she is just last year, gives a career best performance. Willfully impassive but never flat, Moretz is able to convey desperate soul-searching and quelled self-hatred with shockingly few lines, and yet her wheels are always turning, subtle and active all at once. Gallagher Jr. gives the film’s most stunning supporting performance, his self-denial and reserved emotionality stretched over a faux-jubilant exterior in an attempt to keep the facade of God’s Promise intact.
It’s a modest film, unwilling to lean too hard into the dark cliches of violent, melodramatic outbursts or cross into the slapstick of But I’m a Cheerleader!. Akhavan infuses the film with just enough self-aware jokes (there’s a bit about a Christian exercise program called Blessercise that’s particularly enlightening) but never loses sight of its own truly important aims. Cameron Post adapts the just final quarter of the source novel, making for a film that’s ruthlessly efficient, cutting to the emotional quick in the time it takes most movies to introduce its cast of characters. It’s a choice that works for a film with virtues so immediate, though the pacing could leave viewers waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Still, it allows Akhavan to quickly arrive at the film’s most incredible achievement: Cameron Post manages to perfectly crystallize the moment when teens begin to realize the legitimacy of their own identity, then carefully sets up the pieces to allow Cameron to begin to accept it. It’s a moment that’s as immediate in the film’s 1993 setting as it is today, universally relatable and yet wholly specific to Cameron’s own journey. A coming of age film stripped down to its rawest elements, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a lean and evocative exploration of identity and self acceptance through the lens of the kinds of characters we need to see more of on screen. Quietly revolutionary and a destined classic all at once, Akhavan has proven her talents a thousand times over, and made an indelible touchstone for gay kids and misfit teens in the process.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be released in theaters on August 3rd.