An admirable issue film that focuses on character and humanity.
Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a ‘90s set “conversion therapy” tale, took home the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it isn’t hard to see why. Conversion therapy, which attempts to change an LGBT+ individual’s sexual orientation to straight, is still legal in much of the United States and, though largely debunked by science, has been endorsed by a number of social and political figures (including Vice President Mike Pence). So it is a timely tale and one that is well told.
The story, adapted by Akhavan and Cecila Frugiuele from Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 novel of the same name, follows the titular Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is discovered making out with another girl in the back of a car during prom. Cameron is an orphan, and her guardian, her conservative aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler), sends her to God’s Promise, a treatment center run by Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle) and Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.). Though Cameron finds the treatment uncomfortable, unhelpful and even abusive, she bands together with other “campers” and ends up finding more of her authentic self despite her dire surroundings.
Moretz gives a sturdy central performance, but the character of Cameron leads to the film’s biggest problem. Akhavan keeps her camera pinned to Moretz’s face and paints her portrait of God’s Promise through Cameron’s often-silent reactions to what happens there. This often works well; however, there are times when the supporting characters have more interesting trajectories, trajectories that aren’t explored due to the narrative closeness to Cameron. Part of this has to do with the quality of the supporting performances. Gallagher and Ehle are particularly effective as the camp leaders, and though their characters are the villains here, their sensitive portrayals and Akhavan and Frugieule’s generous script allows the characters to come across as flawed, pained and human. But while this seems to warrant more exploration than Cameron’s suffering, which is righteous but expected, Akhavan consistently returns to her instead of branching outward.
This goes for the other campers as well, particularly Sasha Lane’s Jane Fonda and Emily Skeggs’ Erin. Their camp experiences, from their suffering to the tactics they use to fit in, are more complex than Cameron’s But I’m a Cheerleader-esque storyline. The scenes where these characters interact with Cameron are far better than those where we just watch Cameron react.
Akhavan made an auspicious directorial debut with 2014’s Appropriate Behavior, the story of a bisexual Persian-American woman’s troubles with love and family, and while The Miseducation of Cameron Post is definitely a more confident display of filmmaking, it also lacks a bit of Appropriate Behavior’s heart. This might have to do with the absence of Akhavan as an actress; she starred in Appropriate Behavior (and also gave a very memorable performance in the 2017 fright flick Creep 2) and Moretz’s Cameron isn’t as exciting of a heroine as Akhavan’s Shirin in Appropriate Behavior (or her Sara in Creep 2 for that matter). But the other issue is with The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s early ‘90s time period. While it sets up some effective scenarios and good musical interludes, Akhavan’s voice—and the point she appears to be trying to make with this film—are very current.
There are more mainstream films about conversion therapy in the pipeline, so hopefully The Miseducation of Cameron Post is just the beginning of a much larger conversation about the subject. It’s an admirable issue film that focuses on character and humanity. Audiences deserve what Akhavan provides: A story to sink their teeth into. If that story gets a bit lost at times, in its best moments the film follows the diverse array of young people at God’s Promise, who create their own kind of queer community in the face of significant odds.
By Mike McClelland