Gay conversion therapy, a long-hidden societal shame, is a subject rarely brought to life in cinema. The first depiction of the subject in 1999’s queer comedy But I’m a Cheerleaderhas become a cult classic amongst LGBT audiences hungry for representation. Desiree Akhavan’s 2018 Sundance festival hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post largely follows the tropes of depictions of conversion therapy established by these earlier films – struggling through with humour, hypocritical counsellors and the like – but still manages to connect due to the empathetic script.
Based on Emily Danforth’s 2012 novel of the same name, the film follows the titular character (Chloe Grace Moretz) after her relationship with a female classmate is discovered and she is consequently sent to Christian therapy camp ‘God’s Promise’ to be “cured” of her same-sex attraction. There, she finds that the counsellors (Jennifer Ehle, John Gallagher Jr. and Marin Ireland) are hiding behind their own pasts and tries to navigate the tricky dichotomy of faith versus freedom alongside her fellow classmates (including standout performers Sasha Lane, Emily Skeggs and Owen Campbell).
Chief among the film’s strengths is Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele’s screenplay with its empathetic depiction of the teenage and adult characters. The audience does not learn much about Cameron herself as the screenwriters instead decide to make her a reactive presence to leave space to explore the other more unique characters. Each character in the ensemble is allowed to have their own powerful moment and each viewer will connect to a different narrative. For me, the internalised homophobia of Emily Skeggs’ Erin connected strongest as Skeggs beautifully captures the push-and-pull between her morals and her desires. Also novel and important is the inclusion of a Native American two-spirit character in Forrest Goodluck’s Adam, however the nuances of their identity areleft somewhat unexplored.
Moretz holds her own at the centre of the film; perfectly cast, her performance comes across as believably natural. She draws the audience in despite her character’s somewhat flat narrative arc and provides a strong centring presence around which to explore the more difficult storylines of the supporting characters. As she has matured as an actress, it is great that Moretz has balanced commercial and independent work. Her performance matches her previous best work in Carrie andClouds of Sils Maria. Once again here, she balances innocence and beyond her years insightfulness to great effect.
Amongst the adult cast, John Gallagher Jr fares best. As Reverend Rick, an “ex-gay” pressured into heteronormativity by his family, he is wordlessly able to convey the hurt inside that was caused by his own experiences with gay conversion therapy, especially in the climactic scenes of the film. Jennifer Ehle is often a fantastic performer but her character is largely one-note. However, she brings a certain presence and dignity to the role.
Unfortunately, despite the many achievements of the film, the clichéd plot developments in the final stretch of the film are hard to ignore. Without specifically revealing the climax, the film chooses to propagate victim narratives and abandon the plights of some of the characters for dramatic effect. Mainstream LGBT films often fall into these traps – reviews from the Venice Film Festival suggest that 2018’s other gay conversion therapy film Boy Erased concludes in largely the same problematic way; it is instinctive, however detrimental, for these films to abandon naturalism for melodrama. Considering the large changes made from page to screen, Akhavan may have benefitted from stripping out the clichés and replacing them with a little more of a nuanced build up to the film’s final moments.
Visually, the film is beautiful – the direction and cinematography show a great eye for detail. Small moments become impactful throughout the film; the framing of the distance between Cameron and Erin’s beds, girls dancing barefoot at prom and the ironic feminine intimacy of holding hands in prayer all bolster the thematic subtext of the film to a great degree. The use of music is unique and effectively underscores the tension throughout the film.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is a mostly successful work that is likely to emotionally connect with audiences. While it hesitates to depart from the usual narrative of films about teenagers and homophobia, the believable characterisation and strong performances from the whole ensemble elevate the piece to a new benchmark for dramatic depictions of gay conversion therapy.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre between the 7th of September – 13th of September. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.
By Jack Henderson