I didn’t cry at all watching The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with the film. Given my background I was sure that I would be a wreck the entire way through. But Desiree Akhavan is not interested in mining the story of young queer folks in enrolled in full time conversion therapy for the bleak, helpless, tragedy that many of those who suffered through such experiences describe it as. Instead we spend much of the time here looking at the moments that would help one survive it.
I guess wherever you are that’s sorta been a defining characteristic of queer childhoods forever. Something you gotta stick out until you finally reach the age when you can start finding your people and living your life. We are rarely scared for Cameron here. Chloë Grace Moretz is a performer who has always been able to summon a preternatural sense of control over herself and her material. When she’s ditched her boyfriend to get some action with a girl away from the chaperones at prom, she seems to know what she’s doing. Same when she’s able to stare down the Nurse Ratched type schoolmarm trying to straightify these poor children.
About half-way through she has a conversation with a very earnest young gay man where she reveals that she don’t think she actually believes in God at all. It’s a surprising conversation to have, considering I never had any indication that she did in the first place. Upon arriving to the camp she befriends two other sceptics played by Sasha Lane (of American Honey) and Forrest Goodluck (of The Revenant) who give her the skinny on how to bullshit your way through the phony counselling they practise.
When that’s rendered ineffective the strive becomes not one for their souls or their identity, it’s against the monotony constructed to bore them into submission. We linger upon woodland hikes to the gully where they cultivate a little weed, early morning solitary exercise routines, a snatched secular pop song on the radio while preparing dinner. Even language comes laden with forbidden pleasures: dismiss a girl as too butch, describe a boy as cute, is to a reclaim ownership over their desire.
It is strikingly obvious from the outset that this joint was written and directed by a queer woman. The cadence of the conversations feels right, something about the way we talk, a security and understanding born outta way too long having been kept secret and ashamed, and comfort in finally being seen. Check how she shoots physical intimacy, shadowy and personal, always from outside the space. Acknowledging that while the pleasure is ours to observe, it is not ours.
Contrast it to how bodies are shot in the counselling sessions, too bright, fractured, dissociative. Identity and physicality intertwine, the breakdown of one facilitates that of the other. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the camp’s Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) an ‘ex-gay’ himself who we gradually see has totally internalised the self-loathing that he is not trying to burden others with. The devastation it has wrought upon his life, one of editor Sara Shaw’s final cuts is a masterstroke allowing us a moment to consider this guy, the life that he is forced to live.
Perhaps a glimpse is all you need of him, that true self, more underserved are some of the other attendees of this place. Our hero’s roommate who believes that bonding with her father over hockey screwed her up, who sincerely wants to get well but struggles with being so damn into the girl she sleeps beside every night. There’s the femme gay and the angry gay and the girl who fell in love with somebody at choir. She’s pretty much treated as a joke throughout the film, though more for her credulity than anything else.
While there’s a grudging respect to be had for the true believers the methods we see employed are so (accurately) nonsense that it feels we are invited to place judgement on those who can just go along with it. I don’t think it’s intentional, that level of callousness would be beyond a movie that goes out of its way to so dedicatedly spend time examining where its characters find joy. The failing comes in its refusal to confront their pain responsibly, creating this tortured idyll that runs only on the fuel of its administrators.
Where’s the indictment of the society that kept these places in business? Without it, when the something happens at the end of the film, it lacks urgency, motivation. These things happened, these abuses, these ruined lives. Why does it feel all so inevitable? Why is a part of the promise?
I like reclamation, this film’s optimistic tone and empowerment fantasy. Yet the story it tells is not radical, it is instead far too comforting. A reassurance that you could have survived this, you would have been one of the strong ones. That’s not something I’m comfortable hearing because I know at heart how weak I am. It is not enough to be reduced to a tragic prop in another person’s story.
The joint ends with a wonderfully sweet shot that represents an abdication of responsibility, by the characters and filmmakers both. An assurance that things will be fine and we needn’t worry, but the work to reach that point was never done. I am satisfied with the film, it is charming and I am the big gay. Just don’t go in looking for fulfilment.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is currently screening in UK cinemas.