‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ offers an unsettling look and lesson into conversion therapy
Directed by: Desiree Akhavan
Written by: Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, and based on the book by Emily M. Danforth
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., and Jennifer Ehle
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” – Conversion therapy is the practice of changing an individual’s sexual preference from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological techniques or spiritual interventions, citing Wikipedia.
One might think that this alarming tradition ended decades ago in the United States, but that’s not true.
According to a January 2018 study from UCLA’s The Williams Institute, 698,000 U.S. adults (ages 18 – 59) have received conversion therapy. These rituals are not behind us either, because the same study added that 57,000 U.S. kids (ages 13 – 17) will receive conversion therapy before they reach 18.
Why are U.S. kids still possibly subjected to conversation therapy? Well, a July 5, 2018 NBC News article stated that only 13 states have banned licensed mental health service professionals from administering this therapy on kids under 18 years-old.
Only 13, and Arizona is not one of those states.
As frightening as that seems, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” – which won the 2018 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize - jumps right into the alarming material.
This feature film is about a teenager’s experience and state of mind, when her guardian drops her off at a religious camp to fix her homosexuality. Director Desiree Akhavan and Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays Cameron or Cam, take the audience down an uneasy, uncomfortable path into a world that few moviegoers have experienced. Then again, almost 700,000 U.S. citizens have a deep understanding of this twisted form of therapy all too well.
Cam had no idea that her life - in 1993 - would take a dramatic left turn during a double-date at a school dance. After an awkward reveal that night in the back seat of a car, she is now stuck/trapped/ensnared at God’s Promise – a sprawling camp remotely located somewhere in the middle of a Northeastern forest – as the counselors try to cure her.
Akhavan deliberately creates a world of isolation for Cam (Moretz), physically and emotionally. For instance, when Cam is left at God’s Promise, Akhavan captures the scene from atop of the camp’s living quarters and shoots down towards a nearly empty parking lot. It’s nearly empty, because this unnerved teen stands alone without another soul close by. She’s on her own. The program begins soon after, and Cam does not express her deepest thoughts with her new roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs). Erin seems to accept God’s Promise’s purpose, while Cam appears too dizzy from the drastic changes in her living and schooling arrangements to begin to share her feelings.
Moretz delivers a very effective and realistic performance as the shell-shocked teen, and Cam regularly answers, “I don’t know,” or “I’m fine,” to most questions. She makes it nearly impossible for the counselors and the other teenagers to gain an imprint of her feelings. Is she really fine, or is she just reciting programmed answers that the counselors and teens want to hear?
She makes it difficult for the audience to discern too.
During an Aug. 7 Phoenix Film Festival Summer Showcase screening of this movie, our audience was split. Some moviegoers thought that Cam was too stunned to convey her true feelings, while others believed that her responses were calculated.
It’s very possible to see both.
Speaking of both, Cam’s main interactions reside with two counselors and two new friends, and they equally impact her journey over 91 movie-minutes, in different ways, of course. Lydia (Jennifer Ehle) – who always seems to ominously wear red – and Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) believe that they are performing God’s work through their consultations, sermons, lectures, and prayers to blaze a path for these kids towards heterosexuality. Ehle and Gallagher Jr. do not play their characters as malevolent, but they are resolute. Lydia takes on a bad cop role, as opposed to Rick, who is more soft-spoken and understanding. (Note: Although Lydia’s and Rick’s methods are uncomfortable, some historical conversion therapies have also used harsher techniques, so the movie may present a tamer version of the practice.)
Are Lydia’s and Rick’s messages reaching these kids? Over the course of the film, the audience discovers their success rates with Cam and others.
Thankfully, Cam finds a pair of allies with Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), as this inseparable trio offers a close space of frank discourse. Similarly to Cam’s parking lot scene, the three always feel disconnected from their surroundings, and especially during one particular shot. Akhavan isolates Cam, Jane and Adam sitting in chairs in the last row of a large karaoke activity. With plenty of other teens close by, the camera slowly pulls back and leaves Cam, Jane and Adam deeply alone and distant from everyone else. At least they feel detached as a cohesive unit from the group.
Cam’s detached journey of supposed, new self-discovery feels like a colossal waste of time for her, because every moment ultimately points to a disorderly split with God’s Promise. The film, however, gives no promises or clues how Cam will separate, but yes, the teacher-student relationship seems ultimately doomed. Meanwhile, conversation therapy feels as ineffectual on-screen as one can imagine it off-screen.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.