While getting her makeup done for prom, Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) flicks the light on her vanity mirror, showing two different versions of herself. That night, Post goes to the prom with her male date, but ends up in the backseat, making out with her friend Coley (Quinn Shephard). Cameron knows there’s the version of herself that the world wants to see – the one that will accept a prom invitation from someone she has no attraction to, solely because he’s a guy – and the truer version of herself she has to hide in backseats and in her friend’s bedroom while watching Desert Hearts. Much like Cameron keeps flicks that light, director Desiree Akhavan finds herself swapping The Miseducation of Cameron Post between two different types of films, weakening both.
After this prom night tryst, Post is sent to God’s Promise, a gay conversion therapy camp full of teenagers who are “confused” by the sin that has turned them towards the same sex. As Post succinctly says near the end of the film, God’s Promise is “programming people to hate who they are,” and it’s mostly working. Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) thinks her love for the Minnesota Vikings made her more masculine, while Mark (Owen Campbell) is proud that this seems to be his last semester, having risen above his desires. This is all thanks to Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) – the Nurse Ratched of God’s Promise – and her brother, the reformed Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.).
Marsh and Rick use their moral certainty that God can lead these troubled teens away from their lives of sin has struck a cord with most of these kids, except Cameron, along with her closest friends Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck). They mostly play by the rules and hide their disinterest in the therapy, except when they’re together. They grow weed in the woods, Adam keeps his long hair down, and their biggest disruption is a singalong to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.” Despite how their surroundings directly affect who they are, these three mostly remain silent and docile to the environment that wants to change them.
While Akhavan – who also cowrites the screenplay with Cecilia Frugiuele, based on the book of the same name by Emily M. Danforth – is clearly criticizing the practice of reforming these teens, most of The Miseducation of Cameron Post plays more like Saved! then One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-meets-Jesus Camp. More often, Cameron Post pokes fun at the religious fervor that leads these kids, as Akhavan frames characters crying at a Christian rock concert, or joking about the slight choices these kids have made that seemed strange enough for their parents to send them to the camp. Akhavan instead goes light on actual gay conversion therapies, and goes broader to criticize the obstinate rules of Christianity.
As Cameron, Jane and Adam are passive in the day-to-day, so is Akhavan, who mostly deals with the surface level of camps like this. The God’s Promise workbook seems to focuses on critical therapy and “praying the gay away.” Instead of brewing distrust and uncertainty throughout the film, Akhavan brings it on like a sledgehammer. The final act throws all of this into Cameron Post in the most commonplace way – especially for films about homosexuality and would-be punish for it. Almost as silly is one of the film’s only respites comes in a truck with a Clinton-Gore sticker plastered on the back, acting as an immensely obvious criticism of the Republican officials who believe that conversion therapy is a solid alternative to homosexuality.
Despite the quiet nature of her characters being one of the weaknesses of the film, under Akhavan’s direction, it can also be her strength. Akhavan often holds moments at an uncomfortable length, making the audience live in the heaviness of these scenes. When Cameron has her first same-sex experience, the build up is almost unbearable, and especially in Rick’s final sequence – which involves him simply eating cereal – we get to see his viewpoint away from everyone else: his confusion and loneliness that haunts him that he can’t completely push away.
Gallagher Jr. shines in Cameron Post, since he has escaped the clutches of homosexuality and goes on to tell his tale, yet most of the cast doesn’t have that level of depth. Almost everyone shares the same arc of sinners trying to improve themselves, but Akhavan and Frugiuele’s screenplay rarely digs any deeper than that. This unfortunately stretches to Moretz, whose mostly apathetic attitude towards her situation doesn’t help matters much. The quieter moments, such as when Cameron calls Coley in secret, do show more of Moretz’s talents, but far too often, she’s almost just a blank slate.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post has its heart in the right place, trying to showcase the troubling nature of gay conversion centers, but the film’s lack of teeth and daring doesn’t do the idea justice. These characters have skepticism towards who they’re told they should be, and unfortunately too often, Akhavan also lacks the daring that this story deserves, especially considering how pertinent this subject matter remains.