“The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” Desiree Akhavan’s new movie, is a drama, set in 1993, starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role of a teen-age girl who has just finished tenth grade in a suburban high school in Pennsylvania. She is in a sexual relationship with another girl from school, Coley (Quinn Shephard), but they’re secretive about it. Both attend the end-of-year homecoming dance with boys; when they sneak off to a car in the parking lot, they’re caught having sex by Cameron’s date. Cameron is quickly delivered by her aunt (Kerry Butler), who is also her guardian (Cameron is an orphan) to a Christian conversion-therapy facility called God’s Promise. There, Cameron discovers and endures atrocities. From the start, she learns that her contact with the outer world, by phone and mail, is cut off—these are “privileges” that she’ll have to earn. (So is permission to decorate the wall of her dorm room.) She and the dozen or so other teens interned in the facility are forced to take part in group “therapy” sessions in which their “same-sex attraction” is avowed and its causes traced, and in which their personalities are criticized, their desires suppressed, their very identities denied. The movie’s depiction of conversion therapy aptly stokes outrage at the cruelty that it inflicts upon the teens who are subjected to it, but the movie’s artistic vision isn’t up to the passions, the politics, and the conflicts that it evokes.
Conversion therapy, as a title card states, is currently legal in most states; its very existence is at the center of the movie, but it’s not the sole subject. Its legality, its prevalence, its acceptance by many Americans is as crucial a part of the movie as the action onscreen, but “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” doesn’t offer any useful or meaningful political or social context for the action. The time when Cameron is caught in the back seat passes to the time when she’s whisked off to God’s Promise in a cinematic heartbeat: there’s no discussion between her and her aunt about her being lesbian, about her place in the household, about the conflict of her own rights against her guardian’s demands. It appears as if Akhavan knows what she wants the movie to say—what she herself wants to say—and she doesn’t take the risk of showing realities any more complex than the expression of her anger at and denunciation of conversion therapy, regarding which “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” nonetheless reveals some remarkable and horrifying details.
The center is run by a good-cop, bad-cop brother-and-sister team: the operation’s folksy and easygoing Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.)—who is said to have himself “struggled” with “same-sex attraction,” and who is now in a relationship with a woman named Bethany (Marin Ireland), who’s a teacher there—and the terse, sarcastic, conspicuously smart, and unyieldingly harsh Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle). The most revealing details involve the perverse psychological strategies by which the center’s leaders try to change the teens’ sexual orientation: denying that there is such a thing as a homosexual person, and claiming that homosexuality is a choice of behavior, not an identity. Christian principles—the avoidance of sin—are invoked as reasons for not acting upon, and for trying to suppress or extirpate, their “S.S.A.,” or same-sex attraction, and the pseudo-therapeutic practices, including individual and group discussions in addition to mandatory self-analysis, are meant to guide the internees toward that self-denial.
There’s a group mantra, intoned by the leaders and repeated by the teens: “Change will come through God but within me; I must be the change.” But it becomes clear in the course of the film that most of these teens can’t and won’t reject their sexual orientation, even if they publicly deny it. As the action of the film advances, some of those confined at God’s Promise become increasingly rebellious; one of them, Mark (Owen Campbell), who hopes to return home soon but is rejected by his father, becomes passionately distraught, invoking Christian faith as grounds for compassion and tolerance. Lydia’s forceful rejection of his entreaties leads to a tragic turn of events.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” shows that conversion therapy is wrong; that homosexuality is neither a sickness nor a sin; that families forcing their children into such therapy are monstrous; that the officials of such facilities are, however virtuous or even sacred they may consider their motives to be, destructive and abusive. But the viewers likely to see the movie are those who already agree; there’s nobody for “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” to horrify or motivate who isn’t already horrified or motivated. Spike Lee’s new film, “BlacKkKlansman,” makes for a striking and salutary contrast. I’ll go into more detail about it closer to its August 10th release; in general, it’s based on the true story of a young black Colorado police officer in the nineteen-seventies who, with the help of a white Jewish colleague, infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. There, the officers hear, and pretend to share, grotesque expressions of racist hatred; they observe plans for violent hate crimes, which they attempt to thwart. One of the extraordinary aspects of Lee’s film is that it isn’t so much a story of hate-filled people and their victims as it is a story of mediation, in the widest sense: the power of law to mediate between violent racists and potential victims, and also the power of media (including movies) to perpetuate those hatreds.
Though nearly the entirety of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is set within the confines of the God’s Promise facility, the real subject of the film is the enforcement of the law that allows parents to send their children to such facilities and to force them to stay there, and also the attitudes of the law, and the mores, regarding homosexuality in particular and children’s rights in general. It’s about the status accorded to religious beliefs by law and in practice, and the way that generally agreed-upon standards of respect and tolerance are distorted and abused in order to discriminate against gender-nonconforming children (and, for that matter, adults). But the movie includes no dialogue with any person in the wider world. When the teens are taken on an outing to a local diner, Cameron sneaks off, ostensibly to the bathroom, and uses a pay phone to call Coley. What there isn’t is a moment in which she or any of the others in the group rebel, reach out, or seek help. What do the community members at the diner think about the nearby center, about the gay teens who are housed there? What would happen if one of the interned teens stood up and spoke out? Would any of these neighbors stand up to Reverend Rick, prevent the group from leaving, call the police? And, if so, what would happen? Is there a local reporter who knows about God’s Promise? Without spoiling the plot, I can say that the idea of fleeing the center crops up; if one or several interned teens tried it, what would they say to adults they encountered, drivers from whom they’d hitch rides, police officers or social workers who might question them?
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” embodies an apt sense of justice, righteous anger, and empathy, but these aren’t artistic values in themselves; they’re crucial to artistic sensibility, but they don’t substitute for it. What’s missing from “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is imagination—practical imagination, social imagination, emotional imagination, a vision and a sense of the place that the characters and the story hold in the world around them, and that oppressed and abused gay teens still hold in the country and the world today. As a result, the film—despite Akhavan’s admirable intentions and noteworthy observations—is hermetic, static, and closed-in; it offers neither a clear political critique nor a clear path of progress.