In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” the road to gay conversion is paved with good intentions.
Or so those pushing for the conversion tell themselves.
This film, based on the Emily M. Danforth novel, is a faintly-mocking take on something the culture at large might find quaint, the “pray the gay out of you” Christian gay conversion therapy “movement.” And yes, “quaint” is being generous and kind.
It’s a touching coming-of-age tale that remembers that we truly only come of age when we start to know ourselves, and grow the spine to stop letting others define us.
Chloe Grace Moretz is as impressive as ever in the title role, an orphaned teen who has found her first love. And it’s not the prom date her guardian (Kerry Butler) insists “put your arm around her” for their promo photo. The saddest prom since “Carrie” only sparks to life when the girls, who love to dance, all give up on their dates and take over the dance floor.
And the night is made most memorable when Cameron and Coley (Quinn Shephard) crawl into the backseat of a car — and get caught doing it.
That’s what her guardians are whispering to her pastor about. And that’s why Cameron is dropped off at boarding school, God’s Promise, a Christian re-education camp run by cheerful, singing and guitar-playing Pastor Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and stern Dr. Marsh (Jennifer Ehle).
They wear uniforms. They take classes. And they have cutting group therapy sessions, where Cameron suggests everybody call her “Cam,” like they do back home.
“Cameron is already a masculine name,” Dr. Marsh purrs. “Abbreviating it only exacerbates your gender confusion.”
Dr. Marsh, given a self-confident, no-nonsense “Handmaid’s Tale” smile by Ehle, lectures that “There’s no such thing as homosexuality…Sin is sin…Would we let drug addicts have parades for themselves?”
She’s a regular Nurse Ratched, though the kids won’t know “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
She’s “like having your own Disney villain,” the Lakota kid Adam (Forrest Goodluck of “The Revenant”) cracks. Adam and the girl who goes by Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane of “American Honey”) are thick as thieves — shoplifters, to be more precise. Jane is also an expert at “ditch weed,” wild cultivation of marijuana. Cam is naturally drawn to the rebels.
Whatever the emphasis of the source novel, director Desiree Akhavan (the same-sex romance “Appropriate Behavior” was hers) zeroes in on the oppressive mood of this remote school, the self-policing judgment of the students and the crackpot New Age-Meets-Fundamentalism language of “the cure.”
The adults (Marin Ireland is “conversion” success story Pastor Rick’s colleague and “girlfriend”) declare they’ll do “the detective work,” prodding and questioning each student about the father she “bonded over sports with” or the mother who let him “join in feminine pursuits.”
Each kids draws an “iceberg,” filling in the crucial “evidence” of his or her turn towards “SSA” (same sex attraction) in the part of the iceberg beneath the surface. Akhavan treats all this stuff with a straight (ahem) face.
But when a school outing results in a flat tire on the school van, Akhavan gives away the game with the movie’s funniest moment, “converted” Pastor Rick’s triumphant shock at his first-ever tire change — “Hey, I DID it!”
The conflicts at school, like everything else there, are suppressed — muted. The melodramatics here are common to “coming out” films, and only rarely does this story take a turn that surprises us.
Still, there’s a dispiriting reality to the day-to-day grind of “hating who I am” and a bracing gusto to the sex scenes (flashbacks, mostly), with Cam and Coley taking their inspiration from that 1980s queer cinema breakthrough, “Desert Hearts.”
And even though the brevity of the film means some characters feel underdeveloped, Woodluck — who played the son in “The Revenant” — steals the picture merely by suggesting a “type.”
“That sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. It’s my genuine voice.”
The triumph of “Miseducation” is how lightly it treads down a well-worn path, how quaint and out of date it makes the attitudes of early ’90s authority seem to modern eyes.
And that’s precisely the point. Cameron Post takes us from “It gets easier” to “See how much easier it got?” in a heartbeat.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sex, nudity, pot abuse, all involving teens.
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Marin Ireland, Forrest Goodluck
Running time: 1:31