** ½ (out of 4)
This year, the Sundance Film Festival decided to bestow its top prize, the Grand Jury Prize for a U.S. Drama, on Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (henceforth Miseducation), an adaptation of Emily Danforth’s novel of the same name. Set in 1993, a year when gay sex was still considered a crime, Miseducation’s titular protagonist is an 11th-grade girl (played with quiet passion by Chloë Grace Moretz) who has a secret girlfriend named Coley (Quinn Shepherd). One night, unfortunately, the two are caught making out in the back of a car. As a result, Cameron finds herself shipped off to God’s Promise, a conversion therapy camp that’s incongruously located in the middle of an idyllic mountain landscape.
If nothing else, Miseducation powerfully illustrates the saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” For supporters of LGBT rights, it’s tempting to caricature opponents as bigoted, fire-breathing monsters who want to make all gay people suffer. But the two directors of God’s Promise – a therapist named Lydia (Jennifer Ehle) and her “ex-gay” brother Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) – turn out to be surprisingly nice. The former interrupts a class just so she can personally welcome Cameron to the center, while the latter is a guitarist who likes to play ping-pong with Cameron and the center’s other “disciples.” Far from exhibiting sadism, Lydia and Rick seem to sincerely believe that they’re helping their charges turn away from “sin.” The stark contrast between the duo’s actions – most of which easily qualify as emotional abuse – and their intentions is part of what makes the film so disturbing.
Despite this strength, however, Miseducation ultimately suffers from two major issues. To start, its character development proves conspicuously lacking. Lydia and Rick’s treatment of Cameron is problematic in many ways. But as with many a homophobe, their most glaring flaw is their unyielding, downright myopic obsession with Cameron’s “SSA” (a.k.a. same-sex attraction), as though sexuality were Cameron’s defining characteristic as a human being.
To hear her tell it, Akhavan is well aware of how important it is to counter such fixations on sexuality. In fact, as she stated in a recent interview, she chose to adapt Danforth’s novel because “Cameron’s gayness was the [novel’s] whole plot but it still didn’t feel like a gay issue story.” Yet in the film version of Miseducation, the things we learn about Cameron almost always have something to do with her sexuality. We learn precious little, in other words, about Cameron’s hobbies, aspirations, family life…or anything else that’d allow us to see her as a normal person who just happens to also be queer. The film’s portrayal of Cameron, in that sense, emphasizes her sexual identity above everything else, undercutting Akhavan’s attempts to critique Lydia and Rick for doing the very same thing.
Beyond its character development, the larger issue with Miseducation is that it’s much tamer than it could have been. In the past decade, after all, the LGBT film genre has undergone a bit of a revolution. Films like Weekend (2011), Carol (2015), and Call Me by Your Name (2017) have raised the bar, moving past simple, “it’s okay to be gay” narratives to engage in more freewheeling explorations of sexual identity. Compared to such endeavors, Miseducation, a story about the dangers of homophobia, feels simplistic, overly safe, and – dare I say it – obvious. If you’re a supporter of LGBT rights, you’ll walk away from Miseducation with your convictions reinforced, but they won’t be expanded on, provoked, or developed in any new directions.
This is not to suggest that Miseducation’s subject matter is unimportant or not relevant. As Akhavan has herself noted, Mike Pence was (is?) a supporter of conversion therapy, and such treatments still claim tens of thousands of clients in the U.S. alone. Yet films like Carol and Call Me by Your Name responded to such realities by defiantly ignoring them, daring to envision worlds in which third-party prejudice couldn’t dictate their characters’ behavior. By contrast, Miseducation reverts to a familiar, defensive script, retreating into “bigotry is bad” messaging that presupposes complete unfamiliarity with the very idea of sexual orientation. However earnest Akhavan’s intentions, then, the mindset with which she treats her subject matter is reactive instead of creative. And in the end, her retrograde approach is the big reason why Miseducation feels like such a missed opportunity.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr., Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle
Running Time: 91 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Produced by: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub, Cecilia Frugiuele, Jonathan Montepare
Written by: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele. Based on Emily Danforth’s 2012 novel of the same name.
Directed by: Desiree Akhavan