Coming off its Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and hoping for a low-key but buzz-worthy late summer release, Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post succeeds for the way it simply observes its young protagonists and their life-in-flux scenario.
There are no grandstanding moments. There are very few revelatory plot twists. Even a suicide attempt is kept off-screen, choosing to show a blindingly pristine white bathroom sink and tile stained with pools of blood as the post-visual proof to an extreme act of apathy. All of this is why The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an important film and a staggering continuation for a filmmaker like Akhavan who chooses to reveal things via subtle moments and strong character development rather than loud, sweeping arches.
One of these young people is Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz). Caught making out with her girlfriend on prom night (by her male date no less), she’s subsequently sent to a Christian conversion therapy camp by her aunt and uncle.
Like she’s done in most of her roles, Moretz embodies her character with a sense of coolness that can be distracting at times, but in this role, it syncs perfectly with a character who understands the artificial barricade of ‘normalness’ she must present in order to get out of the camp.
And even though she tries to play the good girl, Cameron’s defenses are slowly broken down by two other peers at the camp: Jane (Sasha Lane who was so good in Andrea Arnold’s sprawling American Honey from a few years back) and Adam (Forest Goodluck). The three form a sort of rebellious trio, routinely hiding out in the woods, smoking pot and allowing each other to express the emotions that are deemed distorted by most, but flow as natural progressions of love and attraction to themselves.
While The Miseducation of Cameron Post introduces a variety of characters at the camp, it keeps them mostly at the fringes and focuses on Cameron, Jane and Adam. As the adult leaders of the camp, ruthlessly pious Lydia (Jennifer Ehle) and her soft-spoken brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) hold sway with very different methods. At one point, Lydia’s disgust with Adam’s continual locks of hair falling into his face causes her to grab his head and roughly shave it off.
Doing her best Nurse Ratchett impersonation, Ehle is the hammer while Rick is the feather. His background is whispered about by the kids and he’s no stranger to just quietly coming into the cafeteria and eating with the kids. One of these pivotal scenes is filmed in a long, static take. Whether he deduces what’s ahead for the trio of friends or not is left to interpretation, but Gallagher frames himself as someone just as confused and “artificial” as the people he’s supposed to be saving. It’s just yet another generous performance in a film full of them.
Written by Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, The Miseducation of Cameron Post can be accurately identified as a slice-of-life tale. It’s obvious that for Adam, Jane and Cameron, we’re watching a very painful and iniquitous moment in this particular slice of their life. As Cameron’s palpable dreams about her girlfriend express, she’s not going to change no matter how much ‘conversion’ one gets. All of the film’s characters are at varying stages of acceptance or denial about their sexuality, and the film could easily zero in on any one of them. Cameron even finds herself seduced and in bed with one of the girls for a dangerous late night tryst that exemplifies the crushing confusion of stacking people together and telling them to deny their basic feelings.
However, through all of these cruel attempts to re-orientate, the film eventually finds a bright spot as Akhavan’s gives the trio a moment of bracing authority over their own lives. The final shot, which lingers on something so terrific that to describe it would betray its unforced wonderfulness, is perhaps a grandstanding moment after all.
The film opens in limited release on August 3 and expands nationally in the coming weeks. It will open at Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre on August 17.