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The Miseducation of Cameron Post is easily the best film about a teenage lesbian compelled to go to a Christian conversion camp since the underrated But I’m a Cheerleader (1999). Okay, that’s admittedly a very small field of competition. However, it doesn’t change the fact that this sophomore feature by Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) is a delight, more somber in tone than Cheerleader but still generously peppered with biting humor and warmed by a generous spirit that extends understanding, if not forgiveness, even to the religious zealot characters.
Co-written by Akhavan and her Behavior writing partner Cecilia Frugiuele, based on a novel by Emily M. Danforth, this 1990s-set story follows high-school track athlete Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) to an evangelical school devoted to “curing” her of same-sex attraction. Moretz’s fame should ensure at least niche distribution beyond the festival circuit, and with the right kind of push this could easily find a wider audience beyond the obvious LGBT and teen target groups.
Fileting out for adaptation just the later portion of Danforth’s near-decade-spanning story, the screenplay starts in 1993 with the titular heroine, an orphan since her parents died in a car crash years earlier, already enjoying a secret sexual relationship with her best friend, Coley (Quinn Shephard). The two regularly attend Sunday school together. When alone, they like watching films like lesbian romance Desert Hearts on VHS and having sex with the kind of hunger only possible for young people experiencing first love.
Unfortunately, when they’re caught in a clinch with panties round their knees in a car during the homecoming dance, Cameron’s aunt and legal guardian, Ruth (Kerry Butler), delivers Cameron to a private boarding school in rural nowhere specializing in anti-gay conversion therapy called God’s Promise. The institution is run by the sinister Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), a “Disney villain,” as one of the students describes her. She uses her training in psychology and therapy-speak with a big dash of Christian dogma to wear down the residents’ resistance and convince them that their attraction to the same sex is the result of trauma, poor parenting or whatever else she can find to blame. Aiding and abetting Lydia is her brother, Reverand Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who was once himself “lost” to the world of gay bars but now is found and liable to share that fact and his love of God through song and guitar-playing with the slightest of provocations.
Shy and not quite sure whether to express defiance or give in to the brainwashing, Cameron surveys the wide spectrum of teens at the school to see where she fits in, a classic high-school movie plot pattern given a queer twist here. Some of the kids, like Cameron’s new roommate, Erin (Emily Skeggs), are desperate to get with the program and redefine themselves as straight. Others, like commune-raised hippie chick Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane, proving her star turn in American Honey was no fluke) and epicene Native American boy Adam (Forrest Goodluck, The Revenant) know that Lydia and Rick’s pedagogy is emotionally abusive nonsense, but they’ve no choice but to fake compliance. Eventually Cameron falls in with their micro-clique, finding in them a secret support network to help her survive.
The film doesn’t neglect to show that not all the kids are so lucky. In one wrenching scene, a boy named Mark (Owen Campbell, giving a searing performance), hitherto one of the school’s “success” stories and a model of fake heterosexuality, has a crackup in group therapy that leads to an even worse turn of events.
Akhavan elicits finely layered performances from her cast. Moretz digs deeper than she has in years for a sensitive lead turn that harmonizes especially well with her co-stars. Particular praise is due to Gallagher and Campbell, who touchingly project people desperate to wear a skin of “normalcy” that’s as friable as wet tissue. Still, pains are taken to show how similar the young characters are to teenagers everywhere, keen to let rip dancing even if it must be to a Christian rock beat combo or to lip sync with goofy abandon to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” The use of music is adept throughout, not least thanks to Julian Wass’s distinctive, sometimes eerie original score.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: A Beachside presentation of a Parkville Pictures, Beachside production
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr., Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Marin Ireland, Owen Campbell, Kerry Butler, Quinn Shephard, Emily Skeggs, Melanie Ehrlich, Isaac Jin Solstein, Dalton Harrod, Jennifer Ehle
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Screenwriters: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele, based on a book by Emily M. Danforth
Producers: Cecilia Frugiuele, Jonathan Montepare, Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub
Executive Producers: Desiree Akhavan, Olivier Kaempfer
Director of photography: Ashley Connor
Production designer: Markus Kirshner
Costume designer: Stacey Berman
Editor: Sara Shaw
Music: Julian Wass
Music supervisors: Maggie Phillips, Christine Greene Roe
Casting: Jessica Daniels
Sales: Elle Driver
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