Warning: this review contains minor spoilers.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, writer-director Desiree Akhavan’s first film since her 2014 debut Appropriate Behavior, is a coming-of-age story about a backwater gay conversion therapy center in Montana, circa 1993, run by clueless individuals who sow nothing but shame and despair in the minds of their teenage subordinates. It features several scenes of devastating magnitude: a girl curled up under a small desk, clutching a telephone as she tearfully begs to come home; the attempted suicide and genital mutilation of a boy accused of being too feminine by his father; the anguish of a well-meaning counselor pondering the foolishness of his practice; all of this and more, as the film’s numerous characters navigate a veritable minefield of existential quandaries. And yet, as the credits rolled, I was filled with a soothing sense of elation that defied Cameron Post’s weighty subject matter. Primarily attributable to a keen sense of humor and a wonderful ensemble cast that breathes joy into almost every scene, there is enough levity and downtime to keep the darkness at bay.
It all starts when Cameron, played by a messy-haired Chloë Grace Moretz (seriously, there’s this one lock of hair that’s always sticking out, it rules), is sent to God’s Promise by her religious aunt (she is an orphan) after being caught in a compromising situation on prom night. Moretz is phenomenal, giving what is surely a career best performance, as she imbues Cameron with a quiet confidence and a shrewd sense of intelligence without doing a disservice to her inner turmoil. Cameron is a girl with a good head on her shoulders, but even the best of us have moments of doubt. Exacerbated by her unique surroundings, Moretz deftly mines the depths of a character struggling with self-acceptance and misguided authoritarian figures. Considering the amount of credits she has (65 according to IMDB), it’s easy to forget she is only twenty-one years old. With so much more room to grow as an actress, and a renewed interest in independent roles, I look forward to seeing what her future holds.
Once there, Cameron is quickly introduced to a colorful group of individuals, including Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), the spiritual leader of the group and a “reformed” homosexual, and his sister Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle), whose “curing” of Rick served as the test run of her nonsensical, but no less damaging, philosophical agenda. The two of them make for an interesting tandem, and though the film makes it clear that what they’re peddling is complete bullshit, it stops short of fully villainizing them. Rick especially is a very sympathetic character, as you might imagine given his backstory. I have not been able to get a simple shot of him eating cereal in the early hours of the morning out of my head since I left the theater.
The heart of the movie though lies in Cameron’s interactions with her fellow campmates. Restrictive as God’s Promise may be, the kids are still afforded the time to go on field trips and engage in approved activities. I’m a big fan of hangout vibes in movies—think Dazed and Confused and those of its ilk—and Cameron Post definitely scratches that itch. Many of my favorite moments happen when Cameron and her two closest friends in the camp, Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), are just lounging around, shooting the shit like teenagers are wont to do. Both of them are quite funny, particularly Adam, whose wit had my audience cracking up. Erin (Emily Skeggs), Cameron’s spunky roommate, is also a treat. Really, I can’t express how much I enjoyed spending time with these people—they’re maybe my favorite group of characters all year, so much so that my only real complaint about the film is the lack of development given to some of the more peripheral players. I appreciate the lean hour-and-a-half runtime, but I wouldn’t have minded an additional 20-30 minutes where we delved deeper into the group.
All in all, it seems we’re in a sort of coming-of-age renaissance, with quality titles like Moonlight, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, Eighth Grade, and We the Animals—just to name a few—having released in the last couple of years. The anxiety of the teenage condition is universal and offers a rich tapestry of experience to draw from. Though I’m long past the age, those themes still resonate strongly with me. I suppose only time will tell how The Miseducation of Cameron Post is viewed in a historical context, but for the time being I have no qualms with placing it in the upper echelon of this year’s films.