The 1990s, like the countless decades before them, were no time at all in which to come of age as a queer teenager in America. Desiree Akhavan’s novel adaptation, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, takes 1993 as its host year, and charts the stay of its eponymous protagonist at God’s Promise, a gay conversion therapy centre.
Cam, sensitively and reservedly played by the impressive Chloe Grace Moretz, has been caught with “SSA” (same-sex attraction), fumbling with her sort-of girlfriend Coley at prom. She is shipped off by a foster mother who wants the best for her, to be fixed. She enters a strange and confusing world of apparent kindness and emotional battery. Camp counsellors Rick (John Gallagher Jr) and his sister Lydia (Jennifer Ehle) fill good-cop-bad-cop slots, but demonstrably believe passionately in the religious good they are doing.
The other residents are a sad, introverted group. From male-identifying Erin (Emily Skeggs) to effeminate Mark (Owen Campbell), we see the pain of genuinely faithful Christians who can’t see their place in the world they inhabit. The traditional resistance figures, the non-believers, are Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck as hip Jane Fonda and surly Adam Red Eagle. Cameron soon falls into step with them, relieved to find that she doesn’t necessarily have to keep the penitent act up at all times.
The film’s plotting is gentle, and in fact minimal, with only a few events to speak of, and this sparseness is echoed by the remote location of the hilly campground of God’s Promise. The residents, and viewers, feel isolated from the wider world, and it becomes clear that this is another element of the programme’s hold over its pupils. As she settles into the camp’s monotony, shown Cameron’s dreamed memories of her flirtation with Coley flesh out the life from which she’s been abducted.
The traumas of Miseducation are delivered gently, and with a sense of balance that is affecting – in particular, the humanity afforded to Rick and Lydia, as their helplessness and improvisation becomes clearer. Their struggle is never implied to be equally painful as the devastated teens they trap, but its portrayal is key to the film’s humanistic tone.
Cameron, Jane and Adam, frustratingly, are cut closer to the teen movie cloth. They can at times feel too glib, too sarcastically familiar; this is forgivable given the tropes Akhavan is echoing, but it feels odd to wonder if the stories of the less-highlighted camp residents might be the more wrenching. A final shot that deliberately apes The Graduate implies uncertain fates for our central figures, but the more likely despair of those they leave behind is equally crushing.
Gently funny and warmly open-minded, Miseducation is a slow-paced look at a devastating subject, and one that fits nicely into back-catalogues of bildungsroman movies.