At the gay conversion therapy center at the heart of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the teenage charges wear uniforms: blue button-down shirts and navy skirts for girls, pants for boys. The outfits are remarkably similar to those worn by Red Sparrow’s young Russian spies in training. Blind obedience and conformity are at the heart of both scenarios — submerging the self in service of a higher power. At least the spies get to fuck.
Based on the same-named 2012 novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post stars Chloë Grace Moretz as the title character, an orphaned eleventh-grader living with her aunt and uncle in Montana circa 1993. (There’s wood paneling galore.) Directed by Desiree Akhavan, and written by Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, the film takes a grown-up approach to its young-adult material; this is a somewhat somber YA adaptation, with teenage subjects who are fully formed and all too human.
It opens with close-up shots of young hands gripping copies of the Holy Bible for Teens while a white-haired pastor warns, “You are at an age where you are especially vulnerable to evil.” The pastor keeps talking, in voiceover, as Cameron and her bible-study friend Coley (Quinn Shephard) bike to Cameron’s house, shut the door to her bedroom and furiously make out. Cameron and Coley go to prom with their boyfriends, then thrash joyfully together on the dance floor before stealing away to the back seat of a car, where they smoke pot and fool around — until Cameron’s boyfriend opens the door and catches them in the act. This precipitates Cameron’s enrollment at God’s Promise, a Christian gay conversion therapy center located in a remote cabin in the woods. The setting is appropriate; Cameron Post is a kind of horror film, in its own way.
There, Cameron meets Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who cheerfully rummages through her belongings and confiscates her Breeders cassette. They’re not singing in praise of the Lord, now, are they? “He used to struggle with same-sex attraction,” Cameron’s chipper roommate, Erin (a scene-stealing Emily Skeggs), divulges — until his sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), intervened. After successfully converting Rick, Erin explains, Lydia set up shop and began spreading her gospel.
Moretz is perfectly cast as a girl who sees through the bullshit and instinctively understands that most adults don’t know what they’re doing. She’s not confused; she knows what she wants and who she is. Cameron doesn’t say much about her identity, but she and Akhavan show us. She has recurring dreams about Coley, and in these scenes and flashbacks, the director outlines a budding teenage romance that makes the viewer feel the steam heat of these stolen encounters. Akhavan is a subtle but deft storyteller; there is no external narration, no voiceovers or inner monologues explicating what we’re seeing. We need only see a brief overhead shot from the top of the stairs, of Cameron’s aunt and uncle sitting in their living room with that white-haired pastor, her aunt nodding and crying, to know what’s happening and why.
At the conversion center, Cameron meets friends Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck); she decides she can trust them when she catches them smoking weed together. Through the stories of how these teens ended up at God’s Promise, Cameron Post suggests the rigid hegemony of American life, the all-too-common story of religious belief perverted in the service of fitting in. Jane was born to hippie parents and grew up on a commune, but when her mother married an evangelical Christian, Jane was shipped off to God’s Promise; Adam was born into the Lakota tribe, a community that recognizes a third, in-between gender — but he became a problem once his father decided to go into politics and converted to Christianity.
There’s not one mediocre performance in the film. Ehle is terrifically severe as the ruler of her little clan; when she enters the classroom to meet her newest “disciple,” the room goes quiet as her heels slowly stalk the floor. Chastising Adam to get his hair off his face, Lydia yanks it back herself and ties it up. “There’s no hiding from God,” she intones. At least, not at God’s Promise; a flashlight roving over Cameron and Erin at night, to assure they’re safe in their separate beds, is a recurring image. It also functions as a callback to the film’s devastating inciting incident, when Cameron’s boyfriend opens the car door, interrupting her and Coley’s bliss and shedding a probing light on their warm, dark secret.
Akhavan doesn't belabor the point, but there’s wicked humor in the fact that all the kids at God’s Promise (and Rick) are so undeniably gay. In one therapy session, Cameron can only laugh when a boy takes one look at her and declares her an obvious “dyke.” Erin is a diehard Vikings fan who earnestly throws herself into a workout routine with the help of an exercise video called “Blessercize,” giving all her conflicted feelings and hormonal energy a gender-appropriate outlet. They’re just so horny, the poor things!
In the end, Cameron Post is a damning indictment of institutional Christianity and adults who make it their mission to tamp down kids’ spirits in the name of God. Akhavan shrewdly captures the claustrophobia of organized religion — the oppressive sense that nothing and no one can exist outside the context of Christianity, that we are all merely vessels for an extremely particular God, human instincts be damned. As the film so beautifully, and painfully, illustrates, when there’s no one to turn to, you turn on yourself.