Released: 7th September 2018
Directed By: Desiree Akhavan
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck
Reviewed By: Rhys Handley
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that grown-ups trying to make movies that appeal to teens just don’t ‘get it’. It’s also an oft-maligned cliché that movies about ‘issues’ are mawkish Oscar bait, usually made by people who have not directly experienced those issues themselves.
Amid something of an active reaction against the archetypal Teen Movie, director Desiree Akhavan has in fact created in The Miseducation of Cameron Post one of the age-old genre’s very finest entries, brimming with the charm and optimism of the best John Hughes, but imbued with the weight and responsibility of honestly portraying the queer experience in the face of conservative Christian America.
Deftly balancing these opposing goals, Akhavan presents an earnest and lived-in tale of the titular Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), a Montana teen caught making out with a female classmate at prom. Publicly outed just at the outset of exploring her sexuality, Cameron is sent off to the God’s Promise camp for gay conversion therapy. It’s the makings of a cynical, overwrought sob factory, but Akhavan and the stellar cast and creators she assembles instead have crafted a sincere gem.
Originating from Emily M. Danforth’s novel of the same name, Cameron herself is in many ways a quintessential YA protagonist – sharp and curious, yet melancholy and introspective, but she transcends the trope thanks to a humble, adept performance by Moretz, playing in more nuanced territory than perhaps Kick Ass or the Carrie remake could allow, backed up by Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele’s gentle, considerate screenplay. Cameron’s arc as a queer woman tentatively coming of age could only have been scribed by authors who have lived it themselves.
In that sense, the film does not play like typical awards season fair, when queer narratives are portrayed for the educational and voyeuristic benefit of a mainstream audience. Akhavan’s film is very much not tailored to appease the straight default, but is instead aimed squarely at teenagers, and more specifically queer teenagers, addressing them directly – it could serve as an invaluable touchstone for young people all over the world wrestling with uncertainties about their relationships to sex, gender and each other. The way it portrays sex alone is notable in its lack of gratuity and its commitment to subjectivity – with an understanding gaze rather than an exploitative one.
While one might hope we’ve come far enough that today’s teens won’t have to contend with reaction to their explorations of identity and orientation as harsh as the conversion camps and hardline prejudice that Cameron and her fellow campers must face, it’s obvious that those toxic attitudes still permeate the modern world, sometimes in the same explicit ways, but often through subtler, more underhand means. Akhavan’s film seems to say to that kid in the audience, “I see you, and I get it”.
Though Cameron Post often sets itself up against banality and expectation, the way it leans into a humanistic, empathetic strain of the YA genre – see also Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird from February – makes it imminently appealing to its audience. As a setting, God’s Promise is like a warped, real-world analogue for Hogwarts in its construction. Cameron finds herself surrounded by young people confronting similar, yet uniquely personal, torments to her own, hounded by a cast of distinct and variously likeable or dislikable figures of authority – John Gallagher, Jr. is devastating as ‘ex-gay’ Reverend Rick, while Jennifer Ehle’s Dr. Lydia is at once tender and nauseating as the ultimate authority in the camp.
Cameron’s contemporaries are all packed with clear, winning personality, and an excellent young ensemble cast (Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Marin Ireland, Owen Campbell, et al.) all takes turns in stealing the screen. The portrayal of all characters, however convinced or not by God’s Promise they may be, is considerate and delicate – no one is ever mocked or torn down needlessly. There is even space to goof around, as teens do, with tabletop dancing and cheesy 90s karaoke between sermons and reeducation sessions.
Akhavan does not romanticise the camp whatsoever, but she also does not deny its residents glimmers of honest joy between battles with identity and faith. Its politics are incredibly sophisticated – condemning the horrific philosophy behind the camp without vilifying the devout believers who earnestly think it is the right way to deal with queerness.
In the end, it’s the many directions in which Akhavan pulls Cameron Post, and the grace with which she ties those threads together, that makes for a movie that bursts forward with charm and generosity, providing solace, guidance and recognition for queer teens, while confronting head-on the toxicity that comes forth when people close themselves off from other perspectives.
Cameron Post should be required reading for teens and adults alike. It could change minds, but it could also save lives. It ‘gets it’.
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