Sometimes you see movies because the trailer looks promising, but that’s not the reason I went to see The Miseducation of Cameron Post. In fact I don’t think I ever saw the trailer playing in front of anything at any point. Sometimes you see a movie because you’re familiar with the director’s work and want to see more, but director Desiree Akhavan has only made one film before and I’d never even heard of it. Sometimes you see a movie because there are a wave of critical acclaim, and there is some acclaim out there for this movie but it’s not rapturous to the point where critical acclaim alone is going to make me interested. No, this is actually one of the few times I’ve felt the need to go out and see something because I’m eventually going to have to compare it to another movie. That movie is called Boy Erased, it’s also a movie about a teenager who’s sent to a gay conversion therapy camp, it’s scheduled to come out later this year, and a lot of people are predicting that it will have a lot of Oscar buzz. Since both movies have roughly the same subject matter and are coming out the same year they will inevitably be compared to one another and Miseducation of Cameron Post star Chloë Grace Moretz has already thrown some shade at that upcoming movie sight unseen. So, in order to get ahead of the great debates that will surely ensue and given that there wasn’t anything else out this week I decided I’d give this a shot.
The film is set in the 90s in the Pacific Northwest and focuses on a girl of about seventeen named Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz). Post’s parents died years earlier and her new guardians are apparently members of an Evangelical community as they’ve sent Post to a camp called God’s Promise after she’s caught having a tryst with another girl. God’s Promise is a gay conversion therapy center, one of those places that seeks to “pray away the gay” of anyone who’s forced to go there. Post doesn’t seems to be much of a true believer in this form of Christianity but doesn’t openly rebel against the camp either. Instead she finds herself hanging out with some of the other offbeat teens in attendance like a biracial girl named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and a boy of Native American ancestry named Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck).
While we’ve come to learn in recent years that we maybe haven’t made as much progress as we’ve hoped on certain issues than we’ve thought, I do think it’s safe to say that it doesn’t take a whole lot of courage to be against gay conversion therapy in 2018. These centers are the product of the kookiest of right wing fringes and even super mainstream products like Deadpool 2 can make them into stock villains without too much trouble. Still one could say it’s just as easy to make fun of Nazis and Klansman and yet there’s still value to be found in looking at how people like that walk among us and to acknowledge the suffering they’ve caused. That said, The Miseducation of Cameron Post does not necessarily look at these places in an overly heavy handed way and tries to be more of a character study than an “issue movie.” Cameron Post is clearly someone who’s a bit out of place in a camp like this. She wears her hair short, listens to The Breeders and 4 Non Blondes, hangs out with the minorities in the camp, and enjoys smoking weed and rebelling behind the counselors backs. In other words she’s one of the cool kids and that makes her something of a good audience surrogate.
The thing is, Cameron Post’s coolness as a character is something of a double edged sword. I think the film particularly errored in making Post basically a non-believer in the camp’s religion and a skeptic in their mission. This makes our main protagonist more or less immune from the worst manipulations of the people at hand. As such, what should be a movie about spiritual and mental torture instead feels like it’s merely a movie where a cool kid is forced to endure time at a really lame summer camp run by nerds. I’m sure there are some people who experience gay conversion therapy camps in this way but I’m not sure that was necessarily the most interesting way to get to the heart of the issue. We do get some of the worse aspects of this experience through some of the other campers, albeit in a rather cliché way. For them it’s sort of a Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher is the square and students are better off not learning for him. But for the Cameron Post character I think they’re trying to make something along the lines of a Cool Hand Luke or an Unbroken where the main character sees past the suppressive prison warden and manages to keep their spirit intact despite the hell they’re put through… except that that hell doesn’t seem very hellish because the bad guys are kind of incompetent at being bad guys, which is interesting in its own way but isn’t terribly conducive to the point they’re trying to make. I don’t want to come down too hard on the movie as it’s a well-paced movie with some decent performances and has some details here and there that are of interest, but it feels like it actively avoids some of the real dramatic potential of this setting and probably should have been thinking more along the lines of First Reformed for teenagers rather than the movie about mild rebellion against authority that we get.
**1/2 out of Five