The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is based on a widely praised 2012 young adult novel by Emily M. Danforth, and the film displays both the virtues and the limitations of the YA genre: It's sensitive and full of vivid, likable characters, but its tone is more subdued than adult viewers might want. The screenplay is peppered with teachable moments, some of which blend in and some of which break character to make a point explicitly clear.
The title character is a teenager (from rural Montana in the novel; from vaguely upstate New York in the movie) who is caught with her panties down, making out with her girlfriend in a car parked outside her high school's homecoming dance. Cameron's parents have been dead for some years, so she lives with a right-wing Christian aunt — who packs Cam away to a low-rent gay conversion therapy camp in the boondocks.
The movie is set in 1993, in keeping with the novel, but some Christians still believe today in these kinds of brainwashing prisons that can "pray the gay away."
Miseducation is just the second feature from director Desiree Akhavan, and the first she has directed from someone else's screenplay. (The script is by Akhavan's producer, Cecilia Frugiuele, her first.) The movie won the Grand Jury Prize, the top award, at this year's Sundance Film Festival but had to settle for national distribution by upstart FilmRise, whose biggest hit was something called My Friend Dahmer, which grossed $1.3 million nationwide last year.
So what's fascinating about Miseducation is the gap between critical enthusiasm and audience experience. On the bright side is that Sundance award and an 82/100 rating from critics on RottenTomatoes.com. On the other is the relatively ho-hum 6.8/10 from viewers on IMDB.com and the lack of interest from major film distributors.
So, which is it?
The answer lies in the subject matter. If the unmasking of spurious "gay conversion" therapy programs and the suffering of gay teens with unsupportive families is of particular interest to you, the movie hits its marks and pushes your buttons. But while it's got some fine performances, standout filmmaking it is not, hampered in part by its own button-pushing agenda.
Cam herself is something of a blank slate. Chloë Grace Moretz keeps the girl's emotions subdued, which leaves her at some distance. The screenplay also jerks her around, from passivity (most of the time) to unexpected bouts of eloquent confrontation late in the movie, articulating the movie's themes in ways that would have been better left implied but unspoken.
More compelling and consistent are her allies at the ex-gay camp, two teens who are faking their way through the regimentation, a girl named Jane Fonda (the charming Sasha Lane from Hearts Beat Loud) and a Native American boy named Adam (the deeply brooding Forrest Goodluck, Leo DiCaprio's son in The Revenant). Actor Owen Campbell also makes an indelible impression as the kind-hearted Mark, who befriends Cam and looks forward to returning home in a few weeks.
As is often the case with indie films about gay teens confronting unsympathetic adults, the showiest role belongs to the leading antagonist, in this case a therapist of dubious credentials named Lydia, played by North Carolina's own Jennifer Ehle. Lydia, who got into the ex-gay business to save her now "cured" brother Rick (John Gallagher Jr. of 10 Cloverfield Lane), is a scary figure of false empathy who's steelily fixated on converting gay teens to straight, and Ehle makes her a powerful and unpredictable presence.
It's the same role, more or less, beautifully played by Judith Light in the 2007 indie Save Me and by Cathy Moriarty in the 1999 film But I'm a Cheerleader, which were until now the yin and yang of ex-gay therapy movies. Save Me took a sober, dramatic approach, not unlike Miseducation, while Cheerleader was an out-and-out comedy (and remains painfully funny and relevant nearly 20 years later).
Miseducation takes itself seriously, although Lane and Goodluck do provide some genuine humor. There's also a predictable turn toward tragedy near the end. Still, the film gets points for its refusal to cap the story with either triumph or defeat, opting instead for faint hope.
It's not a bad addition to this rather specific subgenre of gay-themed independent filmmaking, but it's not the milestone its Sundance kudos suggest. For that we may need to wait for the next iteration, Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased, with Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) as the gay teen guinea pig.
Due out Nov. 2, Boy Erased is based on an actual memoir, unlike all the other movies here discussed. (Miseducation novelist Danforth drew on her own life growing up gay in Montana, but was never sent to an ex-gay camp.) Boy has an impressive cast list that includes Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Troye Sivan and is likely to get a full Oscar push from Focus Features. Of course, if you want to judge that movie within its full cultural context, then The Miseducation of Cameron Post is indeed a must-see appetizer.
Grade: B. Rated R. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse