The Miseducation of Cameron Post takes us back to 1993, when gay teens were sent to conversion camps to ‘cure’ them of their same-sex attraction. After being caught fooling around with another girl, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) is sent to God’s Promise – one of these camps – to rid her of her homosexual desires.
Much like the “icebergs”, which each disciple of God’s Promise is asked to fill out, The Miseducation of Cameron Post has much more hiding beneath its surface. Through the exquisite direction of Desiree Akhavan, the conflict between religion and homosexuality is brought forward through a touching yet respectively haunting lens that is highlighted through the use of sound, light, and performance.
“There’s no such thing as homosexuality. There’s only the same struggle with sin we all face.” – Dr Lydia Marsh
One tool that Akhavan uses throughout to show a stark contrast in the film is the use of lighting. Although a simple technique, Akhavan’s placement of lighting is purposeful and full of meaning. Beginning with the Prom sequence, we are introduced to a world full of light and color. The screen is clear, and we can see every inch of the awkward teen environment that so many of us have experienced at least once in our lives. But within the awkwardness, we see Cameron and Coley (Quinn Shephard). Their heels are off, and they are dancing without a care in the world, laughing and joking as they let loose on the dance floor. Soon, Coley leads Cameron out of the hall and we are transported to the dimly lit back of a car where only their silhouettes are visible against the surrounding streetlights. Cameron and Coley engage in sexual activity under the guise of the darkness, hiding their sins from the rest of the world until they are caught by Cameron’s boyfriend.
This motif is then continued throughout the film. When engaging in any sort of sexual or sinful activity, the characters are shaded by darkness. For example, when Erin (Emily Skeggs) and Cameron engage in sexual activity, there is only a small sliver of light providing us with a look at what is truly happening. Or when Cameron rings Coley from God’s Promise, she is shrouded by the darkness of the phone booth as she commits a sin she is being programmed to avoid.
What is more interesting about the use of lighting is how it is used to contrast against the darkness that Akhavan places strategically throughout the film. In the opening sequence where we are introduced to the relationship between Cameron and Coley, their activities are not shrouded by darkness. We are in fact able to see them make out with one another clearly – as if there is no sin to be hidden. This is before we are introduced to the religious influences that are imposed on to Cameron, as she has embraced who she is as a lesbian and feels her activities are anything but sinful. This is continued through to Cameron’s fantasies throughout the film as she dreams about kissing Coley and later Bethany (Marin Ireland). Both of these sequences are full of light, demonstrating that in Cameron’s head, her sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of or hidden from despite the opinions of those around her. Furthermore, in the final sequence of the film, as Jane (Sasha Lane), Adam (Forrest Goodluck) and Cameron flee from God’s Promise, they are covered on screen with natural daylight. Jane and Cameron encourage Adam to hit on a passing motorcyclist, cheering him on when he does. Much like the films beginning, their homosexuality isn’t hidden and is something that shouldn’t be, a point poignantly made by Akhavan’s lighting choices.
“Your silence is aggressive, and judgemental and it makes the space feel not safe.” – Helen
Another tool Akhavan instruments throughout the film is the use of its soundtrack and the silence that contrasts with it. We open with Irma Thomas’s “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” (Will Understand) as Cameron and Coley fool around at prom, dancing without a care in the world. It is only when they are in the back of the car smoking weed that the soundtrack fades, leaving you with Irma Thomas’s parting words to the scene: “If they try love, they’ll understand,” hinting at the events to come later in the film. However, as Cameron and Coley are left alone, there is silence. All we are able to hear is them; there is no need for a soundtrack. It is just us, them, and their relationship, which at that moment is beautiful. That is until the silence is broken by Cameron’s boyfriend who interrupts them and shouts, breaking the silent safety barrier that had been acquired.
What is most haunting about the use of soundtrack vs. silence in The Miseducation of Cameron Post is when we are brought to God’s Promise. Helen (Melanie Erlich) says to Cameron after an exercise “Your silence is aggressive, and judgemental and it makes the space feel not safe,” which is something that echoes throughout the film in Akhavan’s limited use of a soundtrack. Akhavan leaves scenes lingering on longer than they should, using limited cuts and long takes to hammer her message across to her audience. For example, in one of the final scenes of the film, Jane, Adam, and Cameron have breakfast early in the morning ready to leave God’s Promise for good. They are joined by Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) who engages them in small talk amidst prolonged periods of silence. Once they get up and leaves, Rick is left sat on his out eating his cereal. As someone who has been through the conversion therapy himself and has been ‘cured’ of his same-sex attraction, we see a small glimmer that this therapy ultimately may not have worked after all. Akhavan leaves us lingering on Rick for longer than what is comfortable, leaving us in uncomfortable silence as we see the life drain for Rick’s eyes momentarily. This silence makes God’s Promise feel truly unsafe as we realize that even its caretakers are suffering in its hands, and that you cannot truly condition someone to love someone else.
Another example of this startling contrast is when Cameron sings to her fellow disciples. After Jane changes the radio station to something a little less Christian, Cameron begins to along to Non 4 Blonde’s “What’s Goin’ On?” before climbing on a counter and belting out the tune. This is the first time we see Cameron truly let loose is God’s Promise as she sings the poignant lyrics:
And so I cry sometimes when I’m lying in bed
Just to get it all out what’s in my head
And I’m, I am feeling a little peculiar
So I wake in the morning and I step outside
And I take deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs
What’s goin’ on?
The song choice is no coincidence as it can be easily related by to Cameron’s experience of emotional abuse in God’s Promise and how she, Adam and Jane use weed as an excuse to escape the premises from time to time. Yet, this scene is full of joy as Cameron encourages the other disciples to join in with her as she waves her arms in the air and dances on the counter. At this moment, the disciples are free. They are free from judgment and are able to express a small part of themselves rather than confine themselves to the same small box that has been forced on to them at God’s Promise. However, when Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) cuts off their festivities, the rambunctious scene returns quickly to the all too familiar silence that we have grown accustomed to throughout the film, this time seeming even more aggressively judgemental than before. It makes the space that had so quickly been filled with color and life feel even more claustrophobic than it had previously been before.
“For when I am weak, then am I strong.” – Mark
One of the most haunting yet powerful scenes in the film’s runtime is located towards the climax of the film — and is one that highlights the most important conflict within the film — that of the relationship between Christian beliefs and homosexuality. Mark (Owen Campbell) breaks down during a group therapy session after being denied his request to go home due to his father’s fear that his son is still too effeminate. “You are still very feminine, and this is a weakness that I cannot have in my home.”
Mark responds to this by reading one of his father’s favorite bible passages to the group in an emotionally charged outburst that highlights the weak foundations of God’s Promise. Using his father’s words against him, he recites to the group: “For my strength is made perfect in weakness,” before chanting “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” as he embraces his effeminate weakness in front of his fellow disciples. What further haunts in this scene, however, is the contrasting imagery between the Church and the homosexual disciples that perfectly encapsulates the message of the film. As Mark chants, he begins to do push-ups on the ground as proof of his emotional and physical strength. Dr. Lydia – the representative figurehead of the Church values – then places her foot on top of Mark’s back and pushes him to the floor, crushing his strength; a clear metaphor for the narrow views of the Church crushing those who deviate from the norm to conformity. However, Mark rises up against Lydia and pushes her foot away. At this moment, Mark has embraced his “weakness”; his femininity and his homosexuality and uses the religion that had told him he was weak in that very moment to make himself stronger than the narrow view that God’s Promise enforces upon its disciples. This moment is breathtakingly simple yet extraordinarily powerful, placed within a single take as the audience are represented as onlookers to the situation.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a masterpiece of direction and storytelling, and a haunting look to a past that is still, unfortunately, a reality. Yet Akhavan’s message is unfounded. Cameron asks: “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” Leaving a clear afterthought as her poignant words are ignored. Though, despite the ignorance she depicts in the film, Akhavan makes sure her point is well and truly heard. As Cameron, Jane and Adam leave God’s Promise with a true acceptance of who they are, we are left with Akhavan’s parting message: that love will always rise over hate and there is no weakness in being LGBTQ+, only strength, and this love and strength will never change, despite the ignorance of others.