“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” isn’t especially biting or hard-hitting as it condemns Christian programs that aim to convert gay teens into heterosexuals via prayer. Yet writer-director Desiree Akhavan gets her message across resonantly, with subtlety, compassion and understated humor.
Based on the young-adult novel by Emily M. Danforth (Cecilia Frugiuele cowrote the screenplay), the film (opening Friday at the Embarcadero) is part teen comedy, part gay coming-of-age tale, part institution-set drama and a bit of a horror flick. Picture a lighter and LGBT version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or “Jesus Camp.” Akhavan has cited John Hughes’ films and Todd Haynes’ “Safe” as influences.
Set in 1993, but still, sadly, relevant, the story centers on orphaned high-schooler Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz), who lives in a small town with relatives. Cameron gets sent to God’s Promise, a facility devoted to conversion therapy, after getting caught in an amorous act with another girl.
Run by guitar-strumming Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and his stricter, scarier sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), the program features counseling sessions in which Cameron and other “disciples” are taught that homosexuality is sinful and caused by nurture. Cameron’s roommate, Erin (Emily Skeggs), blames the Vikings games she watched with her dad.
Cameron doesn’t think the program can, or should, convert her, but she decides to make no waves. She copes by becoming friends with two other skeptics: Jane (Sasha Lane), who was sent to God’s Promise after her hippie mom married an evangelical, and Jane’s Lakota pal, Adam (Forrest Goodluck), whose “two-spirit” nature has become a liability to his politician father.
Working from a young-adult book, Akhavan is probably limited in terms of outrage she can convey. Her depiction of her teen characters’ struggles with their sexuality could use more intensity.
Cameron is more an occasional voice of truth than a compelling protagonist.
But Jane and Adam are fun, and Akhavan’s humane approach allows viewers to seriously consider predicaments of young people who have been made to hate themselves by ignorant adults.
Even Rick and Lydia, whose actions lead to disaster, receive sympathetic treatment, with Akhavan portraying them as tragically misguided, not malicious. This portrayal may initially seem foolish. Soon we realize it’s courageous.
Low-key humor consistently prompts smiles. Jane hides weed in her artificial leg. Cameron finds comfort in knowing she’s not alone and begins having erotic lesbian dreams — the program’s anti-gay strategies are backfiring.
While Moretz can’t soar with a weakly-written character, her eyes impressively convey defiance. Having previously given little thought to her desires and identity, Cameron starts realizing plenty and becomes a joy to watch.
Ehle, meanwhile, whose Lydia suggests a softer Nurse Ratched, is a seriocomic force.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle
Written by: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele
Directed by: Desiree Akhavan
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes