Gay conversion therapy is an unfortunate relic from the past, right?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Just this January, UCLA published a study stating that more than half a million adults in the United States have undergone the inhumane treatment. If this isn’t tragic enough, here’s something else to chew on: Only 14 states (and Washington, D.C.) have outlawed conversion therapy.
It is this bitter reality that director Desiree Akhavan set out to tackle in her cinematic adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 young adult novel, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the titular character, who is sent to a conversion camp called God’s Promise by her aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler) after she is caught kissing her girlfriend, Coley (Quinn Shephard).
Cameron is out of her element when she arrives, her apparent inability to express emotion even during one-on-one therapy sessions immediately becoming a point of contention between her and her counselors and peers. For much of the film, she slumps around blank-faced, eventually forming a ragtag trio with Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), who grew up in a hippie commune, and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), a gender-nonconforming member of the Lakota tribe.
Even though Cameron is the protagonist, the audience is only privy to minimal information about her past: She is an orphan whose parents died in a car crash; she is in love with Coley; she comes from a conservative, religious household. As a result of her tight-lipped stance and perpetual blank stare, the titular character becomes an obstruction for the decidedly more interesting part of the film: the other queer teens.
Refusing to completely omit the spirit of youth for the sake of dramatic storytelling, Akhavan grants side characters, such as Cameron’s overly chipper roommate Erin (Tony-nominated Emily Skeggs), a substantial amount of life. The attendants’ “grin and bear it” senses of humor bring occasional lightheartedness into what’s otherwise a necessarily dark film, both visually and conceptwise.
While “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” isn’t as subversive as a film about a gay girl may appear on the surface, its treatment of female sexuality is fresh and unsullied by gratuity — there is no excess of nudity or faux sensual moans. Instead, the sexual encounters are clumsy, awkward and absolutely fitting for a tale about teenagers.
But the film still isn’t a coming-of-age story — it’s about condemning conversion therapy.
Danforth’s novel is a much lengthier account of Cameron’s life, starting at age 12 and recounting her teen years until she is eventually sent to God’s Promise. In the film, we don’t get much insight into what Cameron actually has to say about her sexuality (aside from the clap-back, “I don’t really think of myself as anything,” in response to being called a homosexual), but it’s clear she has little to no qualms about her same-gender attraction.
Thus, self-discovery doesn’t have a place in this film. The majority of the kids go along with what is being preached, fearing what might happen if they rebel. And in an interesting move, even the homophobic camp counselors are portrayed sympathetically, despite being likened to “Disney villain(s)” by Adam; they, too, don’t really change over the course of the film, even if they seem to have doubts about what they are doing. The result is a narrative that feels too quiet about the point it is trying to make.
It would be erroneous to disregard the importance of an accessible queer story such as this one, especially considering the number of LGBTQ+ people who worked on its production and the fact that Moretz’s star power forced mainstream outlets to give it attention. However, there is no getting around its lack of emphasis upon its protagonist. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is a story that deserves to be told — perhaps the next time around with more intimacy, more heart and more commitment to developing empathy toward its characters.
But at least its story is being told.