Last January, the Erie County Legislature passed a law seriously restricting the operation of so-called conversion therapy programs in Erie County. Practitioners in these programs claim to be able to “convert” people from gay to straight. Long regarded skeptically and often repudiated by medical and psychological specialists and their professional associations, this therapy has often been sponsored or inspired by religious groups with anti-gay messages. The legislature’s bill, sponsored by South Buffalo Democrat Patrick Burke, prohibits the use of conversion therapy for young people below the age of 18.
Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post provides a disturbing yet vaguely hopeful dramatization of some reasons for this legislation. Adapted by Arkhaven and Cecilia Frugiuele from Emily M. Danforth’s 2011 young adult novel, the movie depicts the aggressively manipulated, psychologically corrosive experience of Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen girl consigned to a residential conversion facility by her family. God’s Promise is set in bucolically splendid isolation, housed in welcoming Swiss-chalet-style buildings. Cameron’s been sent there by her aunt—she’s an orphan—after being discovered on prom night in the back of a car in a compromising situation with another girl.
God’s Promise is co-run by Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), himself a “cured” gay man who greets Cameron with a warm smile, reassuring words, and a search of her handbag for inappropriate worldly objects. As written, and in Gallagher’s sensitive performance, Rich is a sincere man who’s probably not quite unaware of a suppressed but sometimes nagging residual sin. He presents himself as a regular guy who can enjoy a Mel Brooks movie gag fest even as he seeks to guide his charges to the same kind of victory over sin.
For sin is how gay identity is defined at God’s Promise, no bones about it. Rick’s sister and co-director Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), tells a small group of youngsters, “There’s no homosexuality, just the same struggle with sin we all face.” Ehle’s Marsh, with her thin-lipped smile, disturbingly focused eyes and even-toned disciplinary comments, is a sort of bad cop to Rick’s more genial approach. There’s some subtlety here, but there’s a hint of Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched in this portrayal. The movie leaves the interpersonal sibling dynamic unexamined, but near the end, after an extremely traumatizing crisis at the school, Rick is shown in an external long shot, sitting alone in the dining hall at breakfast, and it’s easy to read disquietude into this static visual depiction.
The titular protagonist is a bit of a cipher in the movie’s first half, when Cameron seems passively accepting and unformed, but Moretz and Arkhaven make her more questioning and even quietly defiant as time passes. Her growth is instigated and aided by her growing bonds with two more rebellious souls: Adam (Forrest Goodluck), a Dakota Sioux boy whose Christian-convert father finds it inconvenient to have a gay son, and Jane (Sasha Lane), an amputee (from a car crash) with a needling irony that seems a little out of place in this setting. These two grow and smoke grass in the woods, in which activities Cameron joins them. This will lead to a somewhat ambiguous liberation.
Arkhaven has directed with a subdued dramatic sense, maybe a little too subdued for the suddenly heightened drama of the scene in which that traumatic event begins.
Arkhaven has said she admires John Hughes’ teen comedies and aspired to capture some of his aesthetic, but her film has more in common with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the 2001 Manic with Joseph Gordan Levitt’s young character confined to a prison hospital.
This movie also shows the severe compression and scuttling of material that were necessary. (The novel covers eight years, the movie several months.)
But Miseducation does well enough in conveying its humane point-of-view in an involving, non-polemical style.