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!”
Almost all of them believe.
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.