“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” Is a Hopeful, Hilarious, Heartbreaking Lesbian Coming-of-Age Story

There are lots of ways I could review Desiree Akhavan’s film adaptation of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. I could tell you that its unhurried character exploration, quiet charm, and nuanced social critique are Sundance catnip and no wonder it won the Grand Jury Prize when it premiered there this winter. I could tell you it distills the source material to its essence while maintaining the spirit of Emily M. Danforth‘s beloved novel. I could compare it to its queer cinematic matriarch — softer than But I’m a Cheerleader, the quintessential queer conversion therapy movie; sharper, too; less camp, more satire. Warmer than Disobedience, the other major lesbian movie centered on oppressive patriarchal religions thati hit theaters this year. Harsher — though still hopeful, in its way — than Hearts Beat Loud, the other coming-of-age lesbian indie film that hit theaters this year.

Or I could tell you that when I watched it this weekend I laughed louder and quicker than anyone in the theater, clenched my fists to the point of leaving marks on my palms, and found myself leaning in, in, in to get closer to Chloë Grace Moretz (to comfort Cam with my presence?) even though the camera was pushed in on her as far as it would go. And that, when the film was over, I walked the two blocks back to Union Square, descended into the sticky summer underground air of the New York City subway, squeezed into an open spot near the end of the platform, and sobbed so hard my shoulders shook.

The story goes that Cameron Post’s parents die and she moves in with her evangelical aunt in rural Montana and falls in love with another girl and when they get caught having sex, Cam’s aunt sends her to God’s Promise, a conversion therapy camp where she joins other gay teenagers in addressing the roots of their “sin,” their “SSA” (same-sex attraction). Reverend Rick, a “reformed homosexual,” runs the place with his psychiatrist sister Lydia. He’s all, “Aw shucks, Jesus saved me” and she’s all, “Cameron is already a masculine name; you don’t need to exacerbate your gender confusion by shortening it to Cam.” Lydia is the closest thing Cameron Post has to a bad guy, but the story’s real conflict is whether or not Cam is going to buy into their bullshit. It’s 1993. There’s no tumblr. The internet is hardly invented. Ellen isn’t even out yet.

It would have been easy for Akhavan to paint Christianity as a cartoon villain, and don’t get me wrong, she rightly needles the hell out of it. Over-earnest acoustic praise songs about falling in love with the son of God, Christian rock concerts as a cheap imitation of the music Cam craves, a Jazzercise with Jesus VHS tape. Akhavan invites you to laugh at the absurdity and audacity of it, but then she zooms in on these gay teenagers who just want to use their voices for the glory of God, and watch NFL games with their dads without it giving them “gender confusion,” and follow in the footsteps of their Biblical heroes. “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh,” Mark, the boy with the biggest faith, the one closest to reform cries. “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong!”

He believes.

Almost all of them believe.

Almost.

Cameron finds her people in self-proclaimed Jane Fonda, a photographer who grows her own weed way out in the woods and is at God’s Promise because her hippie mom married a devout Christian man; and Adam Red Eagle, who identifies as a Navajo two-spirit, and landed at camp because his dad decided to join a church so he could run for office. They are played by Sasha Lane, a queer woman of color you already know from American Honey and Hearts Beat Loud and Forrest Goodluck of The Revenant, respectively. Jane and Adam’s spirits are not broken, but they’re deeply subdued. They rebel how they can, sneaking away to smoke and mock Rick and Lydia, but mostly by holding firm to the belief that there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re the only ones at God’s Promise who don’t think they need to be cured.

Moretz’s performance is understated, assured. Surrounded by people who claim the authority of the creator of the universe to condemn and change Cam’s behavior, Moretz remains still. It’s heroic.

Lovingly woven into the God’s Promise narrative are plentiful flashbacks of Cam falling in love and exploring her sexuality with her best friend. Watching her watch Desert Hearts to watch her best friend’s reaction to it is one of the realest things I’ve ever seen on-screen. But that’s not all — it’s the way the lesbian teens at God’ Promise talk about the girls they fell for, the ways they were outed, the circumstances and behaviors the adults in their life blamed for their queerness (sports, short hair, masculine clothes, masculine role models). It’s the way the gay teenage girls look at each other, touch each other, the terrified hopeful ecstasy of it all. There’s no male gaze in this movie, none whatsoever. Desiree Akhavan is a queer woman and her screenplay co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele is a queer woman too. They refuse to apologize for female desire, or to tilt it to make it more palatable to men. It matters.

Cameron ultimately finds her salvation in the truth she suspected from the moment she arrived at God’s Promise, that Rick and Lydia don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, that there’s nothing more dangerous than the tyranny of a weak or compassionless True Believer. It takes a tragedy for her to look Rick in the eyes and confront him with that truth (and, yes, that self-harm scene from the book is in the movie).

I cried when I left The Miseducation of Cameron Post because a movie about conversion therapy in 1993 shouldn’t be as relevant now as it was back then. I cried because it was made by queer women for queer women. I cried because we don’t have to grade lesbian films on a curve anymore. I cried for those kids, in real life and in the movie, who believed. Mostly I cried because I’m a 39-year-old lesbian who’s been professionally critiquing queer media for ten years and I watched this film in Greenwich Village, a mile from the home I share with my girlfriend of eight years — but if I’d been born a few years earlier, or acted on my gayness a few years before I did, or with a different person, or in a place we could have been caught, or if my mother had found out first, in the rural Georgia town where I was born and raised and reborn by the grace of God and baptized in the name of his son Jesus, Cameron Post could have been me.

I laughed, too, though. At the quick-cut to Desert Hearts. At all the Christian pop culture shenanigans. And when one of the God’s Promise kids said to Cam, with such horrified earnestness, on her first day, “I don’t know who you are but I can tell just by looking at you that you’re a dyke!” I laughed even harder than she did. It’s rare to see a lesbian coming of age story this good on film. It’s even rarer to see a movie where your trauma is reflected back at you, but you’re in on all the jokes that helped you make it to today.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 720 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. Okay so the book made me cry. The Q&A with Emily Danforth made me cry. Now your review of a film that won’t be out in the UK for another month has made me cry.

    They made me cry because I relate. Because these stories about Us. Even though my parents reacted much better then this there was still a fear in coming out. I was a teenager in the 90s. Things like this are still happening now.

    The reviews of the film by men I have seen did not make me cry because the men were writing about Them, not Us.

    • More specifically what he actually said was “Where is my torture porn?! Hopeful barely tortured gays? nOt aCtIvIST enOghT!1!”

      So two middle fingers way up, fuck ‘im with both barrels.

      • I know! I mean it someone majorly self harming because of the way they have been made to feel about themselves, but that’s not enough because all gay stories must be full of misery. If straight people are making us suffer then how dare we maintain any joy or hope.

        I admit, when it got to the camp part of the book, I was initially thinking it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. But I think actually that was deliberate on the part of the author to make it kind of seem not that awful, but then Cameron’s narrative shows that it is bad enough. Being separated from your friends, sent away to this place by people who are meant to love you for who you are, being constantly exposed to the idea that who you are is bad and wrong and not being able to change that, it’s definitely Bad Enough.

  2. I saw this film yesterday! I thought it was beautiful and so important and I was so thankful to get to see it. Even though it didn’t move me to my core the way I thought it might, I should have known Heather’s review would! Now I’m just sitting here crying at work.

  3. I saw this at the Tribeca film festival with my partner and started crying almost the minute it began – really where I started was from the scene where they were caught in the car. The desperation, shame and self-loathing placed on Cameron’s shoulders by others around her was palpable (and a very personal experience I have had with ultra-religious parents/friends).

    Anyone who has ever been told to repress their queerness by people who sincerely claim to love you (this is the important part) will relate to this story. It’s truly complicated, and the team telling this story doesn’t shy away from that.

    My partner has been with me six years and was shocked. I don’t think she had ever seen me like that. It was hard to watch for me – but so beautiful and powerful and I highly recommend this film. And book! It’s a wonderful adaptation.

  4. I read the book, and I cannot wait to see the movie, but this review really made it hit home how much I’d hate it if anyone tried to take the crushes I had that never went anywhere, or the gendered middle ground no one would admit was happening, away from me. Fuck.

  5. Usually I’m terrified when my favorite books get made into movies. But with this, my most sacred of favorite books, I have no fear. I am so ready!!!
    Seriously this is my fav book. Several times a week I say “I should reread this again” and my girlfriend literally groans and rolls her eyes. Lol

    • That makes two of us!! Also, since everyone is saying other people have reviewed it with irrelevant and unsavory comments, it reminded me of a very poorly written Fake News review about A Quiet Place. The guy who wrote it wrote about a bunch of stuff that didn’t actually happen and has a poor attention span because all the things he asked were answered in the film. Had I bothered reading the review, I would have been misinformed and parts of the film would have been spoiled.

  6. This was such a beautiful review for such a beautiful film! I read the book a few years ago and saw the film a couple of weeks ago, and loved them both. And it was remarkably faithful to the book, which also made me happy. Full marks all round 😀

  7. I just saw it on the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it! I have to say I liked the book better because I enjoyed the backstory, but I think that overall they did a wonderful job adapting it. It was so much fun seeing it in a very large theatre mostly full of queer people

    • So then, watch the film and then read the book it is. My interpretation of your and other’s comments are the book is more in depthvand expands the story. The movies based on books that I like that have generally worked are City of Ember and the one most like its source material is The Green Mile, which was surprising because at that point most of Stephen King’s adaptations were WTF.

    • That’s how I felt. Cam’s experiences in rural Montana in the 90s felt so familiar to me, even though I grew up on the Central Coast of CA. One of the reasons I love the book so much is because of Cam’s voice. Danforth really captured what a lot of queer girls felt growing up in the 90s.

      There’s no way they could have accurately translated all the internal narration to the screen, so I feel like choosing to adapt only the second half of the book makes sense.

  8. Argh! I have goosebumps. This review is so amazing.

    I have read the book, and tbh I am a bit scared of seeing the film because I am also a former fundie and sometimes that comes up in ways I am Not Ready to deal with. But oh my god, that feeling of how lucky we are to have made it out, and how close we came to Not Making It. And grieving for the ones we left behind. And hoping for the ones who are still there now. It’s just So Much, I’m not sure I’m ready to feel all that, y’know?

  9. “but if I’d been born a few years earlier, or acted on my gayness a few years before I did” — this. I was in the middle ground, in a safe family in a very unsafe toan and county. My subconscious protected me so well until I left – it told me I had to leave, but it didn’t tell me why until I was on a coast.

  10. I hadn’t read the book and didn’t really have a sense of what to expect when I walked in the theater… it was sweet and sad and I think I would have really loved it as a teenager/in my early 20s. It was personally interesting for me to see all the religious rhetoric on the screen because while I grew up Catholic, which I typically think of as quite differentiated from evangelical Christianity, I recognized so much of the culture being portrayed. I think I often gloss over or forget that I was really steeped in those attitudes in my teens, and it reminded me that I probably had a lot of damage done in those years. I’m happy that there’s such accessible media now that a kid like me could see and hold to.

  11. I think I watched it at the same theatre on E 13th st! The book was so important to me that while I loved the acting in the movie I don’t feel like it quite lived up to my expectations. Chloe Grace Moretz however, was amazing and definitely deserves all the awards.

  12. Ah man! I am keen to see this movie on release.
    I was heavily invested in the book on my first read (I shared my thoughts over here in comparison to Oranges are not the only fruit ->
    http://theblender.com.au/the-miseducation-of-cameron-post-vs-oranges-are-not-the-only-fruit/ )
    Meanwhile my wife watched the trailer with me and said … why are they making another But I’m A Cheerleader. She doesn’t get it. Also interesting to note that we watched the trailer for Boy,Erased which is getting a lot of pre-Oscar talk and is basically the same theme but based around a boy. Is it a case of gay men still ranking higher in the cinematic chain than women ?

  13. I have now seen this film and loved it. I cried slightly (probably less because I was with friends and I always cry more when alone). Given it was not feasible to fit the entire book into one film, I think Desiree Akhavan selected the most important bits of the story to capture the essence of the film. It was an uplifting, hopefully story, whilst showing what a damaging place the camp was. It really captured the experience of being there and had some very powerful scenes.

  14. I’m so glad this is finally out in the UK, it’s been a long wait!

    I’m still processing I think. Gave me a reminder of my best friend from when I was thirteen who suddenly rejected all music except for christian bands and told me that jesus could cure me. We’re no longer in touch.

    Definitely worth seeing if you get a chance while it’s around.

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