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


A Dangerous Collaboration is a Page-Turner Mystery

A Dangerous Collaboration (March 2019)
By Deanna Raybourn
Berkley/Penguin, 336 pages.

When 19th century activists and writers began to discuss the "New Woman," I doubt that Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell was quite what they had in mind. Lucky for us. Raybourn's creation is a wonderful combination of fierce determination, pigheadedness, insight, and pluckiness. The New Woman was known for her independence and willingness to defy convention, but I don't know of any who secreted throwing knives in their corsets, were unabashedly carnal, were the "semi-legitimate" offspring of the notoriously randy Duke of Wales, or combined careers in lepidoptery (butterfly studies) and amateur sleuthing.

Everything about Veronica Speedwell is cheeky. Her name is also that of a spiky purple flower that looks a bit like loosestrife, and her partner in adventure is Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, who goes by the handle of "Stoker." One of the first literary figures to write the New Woman into his novels was Bram Stoker. Veronica and Stoker are not exactly lovers–he's recovering from a disastrous marriage–but Speedwell isn't a virgin and she wouldn't exactly kick Stoker out of her bed, or his brother either. In fact, controlling her animal instincts is an ongoing struggle as there's only so much Victorian society will countenance, even from its outliers.

The fourth installment of Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series is set in 1888, when Jack the Ripper is loose in London. But Veronica's attentions are directed elsewhere–off the coast of Cornwall to be precise. Stoker's brother, Lord Tiberius Templeton-Vane, puts forth an offer Veronica can't refuse: come with him on a short outing to St. Maddern's island, where a rare butterfly exists. There are odd extenuating circumstances. Ostensibly Tiberius is going to cheer up an old friend, Malcolm Romilly, whose lordship of an ancient castle has suffered because of his grief. Because the Romilly family is Catholic, Tiberius and Veronica must pose as affianced. The chance of seeing a butterfly thought to be extinct is lure enough for Veronica, though Stoker suspects it's just a ruse on his brother's part to seduce her. She reminds him in no uncertain terms–and our Ms. Speedwell isn't one to mince words–that she's 26, has no desire to be anyone's doormat or wife, and can take care of herself. Stoker, though, despises his brother, whom he sees as a scheming and amoral aristocrat. A sample of their mutual vitriol–Tiberius: "Peace, brother mine. I can feel you cursing me." Stoker: "And yet you still breathe…. I must be doing something wrong."

Stoker will also journey to St. Maddern's and there, things are odder still. Malcolm desires help is solving a mystery that has reduced him to melancholic torpor. It is the third anniversary of the disappearance of Rosamund, who vanished on the day she and Malcolm were to be wed. What happened? Did she flee? Was she kidnapped? Murdered? No one comes or goes from St. Maddern's in secret, so where is Rosamund? As another detective was fond of saying, the game is afoot. 

Without revealing anything, let's just say that truth will follow a very crooked path. The castle cast also includes Malcolm's reclusive sister Mertensia, who is happy only when tending the castle's extensive grounds, including a poison garden; Malcolm's widowed sister-in-law Helen, who is a medium who proposes to contact Rosamund in the spirit world; her 19-year-old spoiled brat of a son, Caspian; and a full household staff commanded by Mrs. Trengrouse, who has been at the castle since Malcolm was a lad. There is also a village full of eccentrics and fishermen, not to mention the bickering brothers, and various motives that are seldom what they purport to be. 

You might want to get the digital version of this book so you have one-finger access to the built-in dictionary. Ms. Raybourn has an exceptionally large vocabulary that is replete with now-archaic Victorian terms. She also has a puckish wit, such a description of a large castle fireplace "the sort for roasting half an ox or an annoying child." Raybourn engages in subtle gender inversion, such as making Veronica more rational, decisive, and sexually aroused than the men. I suppose some might complain that Veronica is too thoroughly modern at times, but it is a novel after all, not a work of history. If there is a weakness, it is that once the mystery is unveiled, what occurs next is telegraphed and predictable. I didn't care. I ripped through this book in two sittings and felt refreshed to indulge in the wit and passions of Veronica Speedwell, a Victorian for our times.

Rob Weir



Capernaum a Trip to Hades You Should Take

Capernaum (2018)
Directed by Nadine Labaki
Sony Pictures Classics, 123 minutes, R (kids in peril)
In Arabic and Amharic (with subtitles)

In the Bible, although Jesus spent much of his ministry in or near Capernaum, he cursed the town and said it would be cast into hell for its lack of faith. Today’s Capernaum is in Israel and the namesake film is set in Lebanon, but Beirut is surely a candidate for a damned city. Once hailed as the “Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut has been a basket case since the 1975 civil war, a cesspool of warring factions.

Capernaum the film isn’t directly about Lebanon’s woes, yet it is. Director Nadine Labaki offers several wide aerial shots of Beirut and what we see is a bleak canvas of concrete, dilapidated apartments, rat maze streets, and roofs secured by cast off tires. When we zoom in to street level, we observe residents fashioning lives marked by improvisation, resignation, desperation, and detached misanthropy. It’s not the sort of place that’s kind to poor families or children. Zain’s family is doubly cursed. His father Selim has the enervated look of a man on the verge of giving up, though he can martial the energy to beat his children and impregnate his wife, Souad. There’s nothing like too many kids, grinding poverty, and domestic violence to make squalor seem even worse. The family survives mainly because their shopkeeper landlord cuts them a break, and that’s only because he wishes to marry their 11-year-old daughter, Sahar.

Capernaum is really Zain’s story. We first meet him in a courtroom, as he has been sentenced to five years in jail for stabbing a man and because Zain is suing his parents. Labaki tells Zain’s story in a non-linear fashion. We learn that Zain’s life was on the streets, where he hawked goods (including Tramadol), shoplifted, and did whatever he needed to survive. Zain (Zain Alrafeea) is probably around 12–he has no birth certificate–but he swears, smokes, and cavorts with the swagger of one twice his age. Zain’s fate is tied to his decision to disappear for a time, a journey that led him to an amusement park where he engaged in defiant acts of mischief, but also met Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian refugee trying to make ends meet and keep secret from her boss that she has a toddler son, Jonas. Zain soon moves in with Rahil and becomes a surrogate caregiver to Jonas. It is hard not to choke up as we see Zain pulling Jonas around in a cooking pot mounted to a stolen skateboard, or tying Jonas’ ankle to rope so that he won’t venture into danger as Zain hustles his wares du jour.

Some reviewers have compared Zain to Huck Finn. I get the analogy insofar as Zain, like Huck, is adept at fending for himself. But let’s not pull punches. Capernaum is a tough and affecting film, but there’s little of Twain’s humor in the telling. Zain will also meet a young Syrian girl who hopes to immigrate to Sweden. Let that sink in. How bad are things in Ethiopia and Syria if illegal immigrants come from such places to Beirut? If you’ve no stomach for children in peril, steer clear of Capernaum. Ms. Labaki does not try to bathe her film in gauzy sentimentality; hers is more of a fictionalized documentary style that uses blinding Mediterranean light to bring social problems into sharp, unvarnished focus. We get a glimmer of hope in the film’s final moments in which Labaki pays homage to Francois Truffault’s 1959 classic 400 Blows, but we get little sense–as we might in a Hollywood fairy tale–that everyone will live happily ever after. Lebanon is still a world of child brides, children abducted and sold, women with little control over their bodies, and chaos reigning supreme.

Zain Alrafeea is riveting and was quite a find; literally so as in real life he is a Syrian refugee who was illiterate when cast in the film. Alrafeea is now in Norway, but his future remains uncertain. Like I said, Labaki doesn’t trade in fairy tales. Capernaum has won numerous awards, including several at Cannes. It is a deeply moving film that, in most years, would be an odds-on favorite to win an Oscar as best foreign film. In 2018, though, it is at best the fourth best foreign film in a stunning field that includes Cold War, Roma, and Shoplifters. It is nonetheless a stunning journey into Sheol. Don’t look away because you don’t want to know about what Zain endures; watch because you should know.

Rob Weir