Miseducation of Cameron Post is Good (ish)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Film Rise, 90 minutes, Not-rated (brief nudity, language)           

The Miseducation of Cameron Post seeks to shed light on religious intolerance.  Its lead actress, ChloĆ« Grace Moretz, is a champion of LGBT rights and the film’s director, Desiree Akhavan, is a Smith College graduate. These factors conspire to endear this movie to me, but they don't necessarily guarantee a quality product. So is The Miseducation of Cameron Post a good flick? The answer is “ish.”

The setup is simple and, in some ways, reflective of the film’s overall tendency to skim surfaces. It’s 1993 and Cameron Post (Moretz) is in love, but not with her boyfriend. She has been having hot and heavy make-out sessions with Coley (Quinn Shephard) that have moved from the experimental stage to reckless passion. The flash point comes on prom night when Cameron’s boyfriend discovers the two girls flagrante delicto in the back of a car. Cameron’s aunt Ruth­–Cameron’s parents died in a car crash–loves her niece, but Ruth is also a serious Christian who sees lesbianism as a sin and yearns for Cameron’s social and spiritual salvation. For her “own good,” Cameron is trundled off to God’s Promise, a Christian boarding school/conversion therapy center to be “cured” of her SSA (same-sex attraction).

God would need to work a miracle to get past some of the center’s basic contradictions, starting with the fact that sending someone with SSA to a facility filled with other gay people is akin to housing a sugar addict in a candy store. Plus, it would take a staff far more competent than Rev. Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) and his psychologist sister Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle) to keep the lid on teen hormones. Their half boot camp, half evangelism approach doesn’t really get to the core of nature and identity, and the two consistently confuse compliance and games-playing with genuine conversion. Can you say inmates in charge of the asylum?
God’s Promise is at least an interesting collection of inmates. There is, for instance, a mixed race, prosthesis-wearing, attitude-oozing girl named–and I’m not making this up­–Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), as well as Cameron’s blissed-out but not quite buttoned–down roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs). On the male side, there is Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), a Lakota two-spirit (third gender), and his roommate Mark (Owen Campbell), who is outwardly the school’s star convert. Cameron, like most of the kids at God’s Promise, is mainly conflicted. She knows how she feels but worries that her aunt Ruth may be right about God and what she should want. Another intriguing character in this vein is stout Helen (Melanie Ehrlich), who would be mercilessly taunted in a regular high school. She possesses a great singing voice, though, and thinks maybe she can use it as an evangelical tool and clarify all of her identity issues. You can bet the farm that things will not go entirely as planned for anyone, even for those who yearn to become heterosexual.
This movie is in the spirit of films such as Saved! (2004), Jesus Camp (2006), and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), though it’s not as good as any of them. Its strongest feature lies with strong performances from Moretz, Goodluck, and Lane. Each is in his or her early 20s, but easily look and act the part of high school adolescents. Moretz in particular appears poised to become the next bright young thing. She is the princess of cool detachment, even when she’s seething with anger, sadness, or resignation. Lane and Goodluck are more sly and enigmatic, but all three keep us just enough off balance to make us wonder what they will conspire to do. Ehle is also superb in her portrayal of an ice queen wearing an evangelical cloak.
This film won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but in my estimation that was overly charitable. Too many of the peripheral characters are unconvincing cardboard cutouts. Gallagher’s Rick is a rah-rah, guitar-strumming come-to-Jesus minister, but he’s also so clueless that we wonder how he ended up in charge of anything, much less a band of vulnerable young folks. He also seems more goofy than charismatic. Skeggs’ out of nowhere break in character is exactly that: out of nowhere. Several other characters appear in cameos that are personality 'types,' but they lack the development to make them seem real. 
Akhavan’s direction, depending on your point of view, is either improvisational or overly passive. There is something to be said for giving actors wide latitude and, at times, her film-the-riffs approach captures the inner turmoil of the adolescent mind. It is, however, also a director’s job to impose a certain degree of coherence for viewers. It is perhaps an odd remark to make, but this would have been a far better film had it been nastier. Akhavan wants us to grapple with assumed/imposed versus inherent sexual identity, but the message that comes across most vividly is that God’s Promise personnel were incompetent.
Akhavan exposes the sanctimonious veneer of gay conversion therapy and, by extension, sanctimony and puffed-up piety. Still, what we see is a scratch on the surface. Her Christian heavies are more bumbling and comically inept than menacing or small-minded. This has the effect of pulling punches rather than delivering any sort of body blow to the essential arrogance of those who believe that God’s will has been delivered unto them in a small gift-wrapped box.
Rob Weir

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