Director Desiree Akhavan comes into her own with heartfelt film on conversion therapy
Trailers for Desiree Akhavan’s second feature hinted at a queer coming-of-age story following in the tracks of recent indie successes Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017) and Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018). Adapted from the acclaimed Emily M. Danforth novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz in a career-defining role) as she is sent to a gay conversion therapy centre after getting caught with another girl in the backseat of a car on prom night. Funny scenes of organised group fun, self-discovery and rebellion follow teen movie traditions, yet, they take on a whole new range of meanings against the chilling backdrop of homophobic rhetoric, religious indoctrination and emotional abuse.
Akhavan’s second feature film marks a move away from the Brooklyn hipster scene of Girls and Appropriate Behaviour which brought her forth; it is a blessing and a confirmation that she is a force to be reckoned with. Akhavan is losing her (somewhat irritating) cool and it is a good thing! She comes into her own as a most exciting and subtle voice in American indie film-making. Her fiery brand of dark humour and portrayal of uneasy social situations take a new turn in Cameron Post.
Despite a few chuckles, Cameron Post compels the viewers to the deepest respect and gravity and does not use conversion camps as a gimmick. It offers a much-needed outlet for outrage over the existence of such institutions. Cameron’s confrontational attitudes towards misguided authority regularly triggers indignation at the ignorance and violence of adults, in and outside the camp. Yet, where the film is truly brilliant is that it does not blindly dismiss its antagonists. Akhavan unearths the frightening evil lying at the core of good intentions displayed by the camp professionals and fellow boarders. The characters of “former gay” camp counsellor Rick and his sister Dr. Lydia Marsh are fascinating in their complexity and impressively unnerving performances delivered by John Gallagher Jr. and Jennifer Ehle. They are determined to help save the lost souls of their young inmates pushing through pain and psychological warfare to achieve what they believe to be a good deed.
The film takes us not only on an emotional, but also a moral roller coaster by constantly shifting tones, reducing the line between the absurd ridiculousness of conversion therapy, the harrowing fragility of the characters, and a penetrating fear of how destructive love and care can become. Characters struggle to manage two overpowering forms of love, on the one hand, the emotional attraction towards potential sexual partners, and on the other hand, the duty of love to family and religious community. It is in the complex depiction of love(s) that lies the brilliance of The Miseducation of Cameron Post which refuses to assign value to one form of emotional affection over the other.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post was released in the UK on Friday 7 September. It has been awarded the Grand Jury Prize for US Drama at Sundance Film Festival 2018.