Following its Grand Jury prize win at Sundance earlier this year, Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post received its New York premiere at the 17th Tribeca Film Festival.
Based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, the film follows Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) as she is sent to conversion therapy by her conservative aunt when she’s caught being intimate with her Bible study classmate Coley (Quinn Shephard).
Life had already been stiflingly at Cameron’s religious school, where the students are subjected to dire warnings and derision from their teachers for being at an age where they’re particularly susceptible to sin and wickedness. At God’s Promise, the live-in conversion therapy centre, Cameron and her fellow “disciples” are compelled to sign a contract committing them to defeating their “illness”, as one of the leaders Rick puts it. We learn that Rick too once had “SSA” i.e. same sex attraction, but “was able to overcome his own illness”. It’s left up to the audience to decide how successful his conversion has been. John Gallagher Jr. gives a subtly moving performance as Rick, and in one lingering, intimate shot we observe him sitting alone at the breakfast table, a deep sadness is palpable.
Prolonged shots such as this recur throughout the film at key moments, resulting in a closeness with the characters that draws us in. In one scene, Cameron pleads with her aunt on the phone to allow her to leave God’s Promise. After the call ends we remain with a distraught Cameron, crouched under a desk, the duration of the shot enhancing the scene’s impact and helping to avoid any sense of melodrama.
Moretz brings both a vulnerability and an inner determination to the central role of Cameron, who is still coming to terms with the death of both her parents in a car crash, while having to survive in a hostile environment. Another strong performance comes from Jennifer Ehle as the Director of God’s Promise, Dr. Lydia Marsh, who delivers an icy, steely calm as well a sense that there’s a rage threatening to emerge from beneath the surface. Marsh isn’t depicted as a two dimensional monster, instead there’s a certain inscrutability to her and her motives, however misguided, appear to be genuine. She corrects Cameron when she uses the word homosexuality saying that there’s no such thing and asking “would you throw parades for drug addicts?”
A particularly disturbing event which highlights the negative impact of the centre’s practices is wisely kept off screen and is all the more harrowing for it as we witness the distress of the “disciples” reacting to what’s happened, while they’re continually forced to repress their own true feelings. It’d be hard not to agree with Cameron when she asks an inspector visiting God’s Promise, “how is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?”
Despite the film’s subject matter, as with Akhavan’s outsanding 2014 debut feature, Appropriate Behaviour, there’s plenty of humour throughout. There’s also a sense of hopefulness that emerges through the strong friendships Cameron forms with her peers, particularly Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) as the three fight to retain a sense of themselves.
Although the film is set in 1993 it is sadly far from a period piece. Conversion therapy for minors is still legal in the majority of states across the USA, giving the film a searing urgency.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be screened at Sundance London on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd June.