“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” takes place in the early ’90s, and it’s a shame neither the book nor the movie existed back then. That was before Ellen DeGeneres professed, “Yep, I’m Gay,” on the cover of Time magazine (1997), before a weekly sitcom called “Will & Grace” brought an openly gay character into primetime (1998), and of course, long before same-sex couples won the right to get married in all 50 states (2015). In the early ’90s, it was not a good idea to double-date to the school formal, then wind up making out with the prom queen in the back seat of your boyfriend’s car — which is the premise of both Emily M. Danforth’s novel and director Desiree Akhavan’s relatively flat adaptation thereof, a surprise winner at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
When the orphaned Cameron does exactly that, her guardians send her to a Christian camp called God’s Promise, which specializes in gay conversion therapy. In much the way “Shock Corridor” examined mental institutions more than half a century ago, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is really about the misunderstanding of Cameron Post as parents, doctors, and so on struggle to curb certain desires that ultimately don’t need to be “fixed.” Luckily, no one’s threatening a lobotomy or genital-shock therapy here, although the movie — which would have been right at home on Lifetime two decades ago — respectfully argues that Christian organizations that force nonconforming kids to deny their true nature are no less macabre.
Such institutions still exist, and perhaps that’s why this film does, too, despite a wealth of more nuanced conflicted-orientation stories that have played Sundance over the past two decades — from “But I’m a Cheerleader,” a campy 1999 satire starring Natasha Lyonne as an all-American girl for whom boot camp backfires in a big way, to “I Am Michael,” in which James Franco played a gay activist who denounced his homosexuality and devoted himself to helping others beat the same “affliction.” Or maybe the point here is that Cameron never really questions her homosexuality, which is a progressive notion, but also dramatic poison to a movie about the religious brainwashing apparatus designed to “cure” adolescents of SSA (or “same-sex attraction”).
Trading shrill satire for sincere drama, “Appropriate Behavior” director Akhavan casts 20-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz as Cameron, and counter-intuitive as it may sound, this actually ranks among the provocative actress’s least controversial roles (which also include pre-teen assassin in “Kick-Ass,” forever-adolescent vampire in “Let Me In,” and high-school sorceress in “Carrie”). What would have given her story some edge: the idea that Cameron might actually believe she needs saving. As it is, whenever she finds a private moment, she plunges into explicit daydreams about what she’d like to do to Coley (Quinn Shephard), the prom queen who got her into this mess, only to later betray her by mail.
For adults, “Miseducation” may seem overly simplistic, and yet, to young-adult audiences, the story’s many clichés ought to resonate simply by dint of being the first time teen viewers have encountered them on screen (the movie trades in many boarding-school and juvenile-detention clichés, especially the life-threatening act that forces the institution to question its own mission statement). Still, Akhavan seems to be preaching to the converted: Her script, co-written with Cecilia Frugiuele, decries religious hypocrisy by showing unconditional love toward the camp’s young charges, while demonizing its counselors, Reverend Rick (an “ex-gay” played by John Gallagher Jr.) and his headshrinker sister Lydia (an ultra-stern Jennifer Ehle), who applies the technique that worked on Rick to every self-questioning teen who comes through their doors.
Rick and Lydia are like the wardens in a minimum-security prison whose inmates can come and go as they please. The staff do bed-checks at random hours to make sure the same-sex roommates aren’t hooking up after dark, but repression is no long-term solution. Even more than a jihadist camp for kids, God’s Promise is turning young people into human time bombs.
“Do you know what we as adults are doing in church every week?” lectures one of Cameron’s teachers in the opening scene. “We’re trying to undo the things we did at your age.” A line like that is meant to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck: How dare an adult try to limit the autonomy and “personal truth” (a phrase heard often around Sundance this year) of impressionable youth? Still, it’s a little easier to feel the outrage when the actress playing Cameron is 20 years old, compared to the range — from 12 to 16 — described in Danforth’s novel. A generation earlier, Cameron might well have wound up in a nunnery.
The fundamental clash of perspectives here hinges on the debate over whether being gay is a choice, though that word is never uttered in the movie. Rather, Lydia firmly states, “There’s no such thing as homosexuality,” following that whopper up with, “Would you let drug addicts throw parades for themselves?” This is the kind of logic Cameron is up against, though she knows better than to debate her elders. The movie leaves that to an angry young man named Dane (Christopher Dylan White), one of perhaps half a dozen other campers thoroughly disillusioned with God’s Promise.
Like Marti Noxon’s “To the Bone” (a Diablo Cody-esque, high-attitude dramedy about a house for young people with eating disorders) or “Short Term 12” (in which Gallagher played a more multi-dimensional youth counselor, surrounded by at-risk teens), the best part of “Miseducation” is the diverse group of adolescents sharing Cameron’s experience. What do they have in common? Each is being asked to suppress or deny an essential part of themselves, and all have been sent to God’s Promise not by choice, but because their parents (often a religious step-father or -mother) are threatened by their kids’ “gender confusion.”
There’s Jane Fonda (“American Honey” star Sasha Lane), who stashes her hand-picked ditch weed in her prosthetic leg, and best friend Adam (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American whose androgyny can be partly explained by his tribe’s belief in “two-spirit” personalities. Early on, Cameron’s tomboyish roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) confesses to having a crush on Mark (Owen Campbell) — or is she trying to convince herself? Among these characters, Cameron is arguably the least interesting: Square-shouldered and husky-voiced, Moretz suggests a young Candice Bergen, minus her unflappable self-confidence. Moretz plays Cameron like a compliant wallflower, convinced that she doesn’t belong at God’s Promise, but apparently content to study the camp’s weird dynamics as if she were some kind of amateur anthropologist.
While the ensemble’s personalities are endearing enough, it’s the psychology of these characters that ought to make a story like this engaging. Instead, the movie seems afraid to entertain even the slightest bit of doubt as to whether these repressed teens would be better off living as openly gay. Their counselors want to force them back inside the closet, then nail the door shut after them. But the real target here are the parents. Virtually the movie’s only stylistic flourish comes early on, when a series of mini-cutscenes amusingly reveals how each of the campers wound up at God’s Promise.
“How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” Cameron demands. Would watching Cameron and her new best friends break free constitute a happy ending, or would doing so fall more in line with the famously ambivalent last scene in “The Graduate,” in which the young lovers clearly have a tough road ahead? In any case, it’s been proven that identifying accepting, positive role models goes a long way to decrease the risk of suicide among LGBT youth, which means that simply by sharing this story, both Danforth and Akhavan may well be saving lives.