Moral discipline and formal trimness make this a must-see tale

David G. Hughes on Desiree Akhavan’s ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ (2018)

“You people don’t have a clue what you’re doing, do you? You’re just making it up as you go along”, admonishes Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) to her evangelical “carer”, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), an outburst we have been anticipating throughout her reluctant compliance at a gay conversion therapy camp, “God’s Promise”. One of two misguided Christian authorities at the camp, Rick isn’t a particularly evil person — adorning friendly facial fuzz and a guitar-plucking sensibility — and nor is his broad-shouldered authoritarian sister, Dr. Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) whose out to “de-gay” the residents. Director Desiree Akhavan isn’t interested in liberal mockery of conservative America à la Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008), and thus avoids the Cruella de Vil / Nurse Ratched caricature. Instead, she poses a deeper and more productive question: at what point does ignorance, backed by a seemingly benign belief that what is being done is in your interest, become abusive or even criminal? More so, what do you do when the forces that are supposed to protect you — family and society — cause you nothing but damage?

The result of this pseudo-psychotherapy appears to be only guilt, self-loathing, repression and internalised homophobia, inconsequential collateral damage in the war against the Devil. Rick is often cited as the “success” story of the camp, patient zero who heeded God’s sexual intervention at a gay bar and “cured” his “SAA” (Same-Sex Attraction) — the use of acronym giving it the veneer of an illness. And yet, driven by a beautifully subtle performance by Gallagher, he is the film’s most tragic and lonesome character, trapped in a rut of the soul. What makes Cameron’s aforementioned words so biting is not just the exposure of the brother and sister’s unbridled arrogance in messing with things they cannot comprehend, but the universal realisation that often marks a transition into maturity: knowledge that adults don’t know what the fuck they are doing either. Worse than that, good intentions can often be as destructive as bad ones.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post showcases the unjust fallacy of these camps, but it has the strength to heed its own word of God. Crucified on the cross, Christ declared, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) There is little hate in this tale, no sense of bitterness; the spirit is loving, good humoured. Perhaps it is not being angry enough, as Vanity Fair contend: “”‘Cameron Post’ is almost too permissive; I lost track, on occasion, of the fact that this environment is intended to be repressive.” But this refusal to construct a fictional environment that relishes in maximal suffering is nothing but refreshing, for that is not the be-all-and-end-all of queer identity. More so, it is not in accordance with the films rejection of guilt complexes in favour of progressive momentum. Rather, Akhavan’s film is about tenderness in the darkness, union on the sidelines, families outside of blood. The sex scenes are, and have to be, so much more important than the depictions of discipline and indoctrination. When the forces of society and family resort to specious logic and bad metaphors to explain your nature away, the burden of self-emancipation becomes yours alone, effectively stated in an ending that recalls the free uncertainty of another alienated youth film — The Graduate (1967). The light-hearted treatment of a serious issue, in a manner that never avoids or trivialises the toil and turmoil of homosexual life, is the most effective rejoinder to the sordid existence of these camps.

That the film does not purport to be out-there ‘radical’ and is, in many ways, rather commercial, is part of the films chief virtues. The story and themes has its obvious hetero-heritage in the films of John Hughes and Douglas Sirk and certainly recalls the indie-pop quirk of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). As in those films, identification and wisdom lies firmly with the alienated youth feeling torn apart, and it is this that will make the film so re-affirming and powerful for adolescents struggling with the anxiety of worldly negotiation. A lot of this comes from career best work of Chloe Grace Moretz as the monosyllabic Cameron, someone who can only ever muster a whisper of response to the treatment questions. She is not uncooperative, but she also does not think anything is wrong with her, and so why does she have to act in an otherwise manner. This quiet reserve may not be the sort of heroism that we expect or even demand when faced with such an unjust reality, there is no grand “fuck you” or even political conflict. Even at the point of rebellion, it is done in the most polite and amicable of departing, a simple wave goodbye and a walk over the hill. Cameron learns but, crucially, she doesn’t change.

This is an emotionally honest film from an often sidelined perspective — that of female homosexuality. While representation of male homosexuality has become increasingly normalised and accepted, or even commercial and “respectable”, other than Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), female homosexuality remains a taboo in commercial cinema. Taboo’s should be broken, but respected. Akhavan has articulated a progressive truth that she is uniquely qualified to translate on screen, whilst showing a courageous and admirable empathy towards people you could conceivably see as her enemy. Her moral discipline, in accordance with the formal trimness and efficiency of the storytelling, leaves The Miseducation of Cameron Post as a must-see film.

Release: September 7, 2018

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.