Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post attempts a balancing act between the grave realities of conversion therapy and the lighthearted humor and charm that most often characterize coming-of-age films.
The film, based on the novel of the same name by Emily M. Danforth, follows the titular character (Chloë Grace Moretz) as she is sent to God’s Promise, a fictional conversion therapy “camp” by her religious Aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler) when she is caught kissing Coley (Quinn Shephard), her best friend, after their homecoming dance. Though the film skips large sections of Danforth’s 400-plus page novel, Akhavan’s choice to focus on the latter half of the narrative broadens the focus of the film to include all of the complex characters Cameron meets at God’s Promise.
While Miseducation depicts Cameron’s experience at a conversion camp, it would be inaccurate to typify the film as simply a horror story of conversion therapy. The dangers are wholly present — emotional abuse, forced adherence to strict gender roles, the use of religion to create guilt — but the condemnation of conversion therapy never feels aggressive or heavy-handed. Instead, the constant feelings of confusion, isolation, and self-doubt are revealed through snippets of conversation, lingering shots of solitude, and each unique story that Cameron and her peers carry with them, which are presented through a written exercise all new “disciples” must complete that forces them to falsely associate past traumas with their feelings of what the jovial pastor (Steven Hauck) and stoic therapist (Jennifer Ehle) at God’s Promise refer to as “same-sex attraction”.
Miseducation walks the line between the seriousness of conversion therapy and the lighthearted nature of its genre well, and every wisecrack or point of tension feels well-placed. Strategically interspersed within its nostalgic and goofy humor, the film does have its darker moments. These scenes linger long after the plot has moved on, creating a permanent tonal shift by the latter half of the film. Life at God’s Promise becomes tainted with the bitter realities of trauma, and these moments weigh heavily on the characters. In one scene, Cameron calls her Aunt Ruth after a particularly traumatic event involving one of her peers at God’s Promise, and asks to come home. Her aunt tells her to stay focused, to give God’s Promise “another chance”. Cameron hangs up the phone and breaks down in violent sobs, crouched under a desk. The next time we see Cameron, her resentful, sardonic attitude is gone, replaced by a quiet, torturous isolation. She sits in painful silence with her friends at God’s Promise (Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck) as they struggle to process their reality when sarcastic comments and mockery feel hollow. Confusion and angsty cynicism turn into sorrow and desperation, and the actors handle this shift effortlessly.
Though the emotional abuse at God’s Promise is continually present, the film never spells out the homophobia faced by its characters. Unlike many queer films, Miseducation never asks for sympathy, or even recognition, from a straight audience. Aside from a few truly horrific incidents, the violence and discrimination experienced by Cameron and her peers is subtle, and not at all unique to conversion therapy. The lies that the teenagers at God’s Promise are fed — that their homosexuality is a sin, a phase, and an underlying symptom of psychological trauma — are a sort of verbally violent homophobia that is all too familiar to queer people. While the offhand comments made by well-meaning, older relatives and enthusiastic youth pastors may go unnoticed by our allies, these indirect attacks on our very identities are, at times, the most damaging.
When Cameron describes her experience at conversion therapy as being “programmed to hate [herself],” the scene feels like much more than an angry retort against the therapy sessions and group prayer the teenagers at God’s Promise must attend every day. She explains that while the pastor and therapist at God’s Promise are not physically abusive, the indoctrination and misguided efforts to “cure” her feel just as violent. Cameron’s observation of reality at God’s Promise functions as a metaphor for the way queerness itself is attacked, invalidated, and disregarded as a deviant “other” by heteronormative society.
Fundamentally, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not about conversion therapy, nor is it a voyeuristic film pandering to straight audiences. Made by and for queer people, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a story about growing up in isolation, and the solidarity queer kids must find in each other when the adults in their lives abandon them. It is a celebration of the resiliency of queer kids who are threatened by the violence of a heteronormative society. Cameron Post’s strength, in herself and in her companions, is not a powerful lesson, but a reflection of the reality of growing up queer.
Carolyn Ford is a Copy Editor at The Rational Creature. They study English and Gender and Sexuality studies at NYU with a particular interest in queer coming-of-age narratives.