This film split critics and audiences alike with its story about a young gay woman sent to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp. For some it doesn’t go far enough in supporting gay teenagers and denouncing Evangelical Christians who condemn same sex relationships as sinful. But many others find the film’s generally calm and non-judgemental approach to be exactly what is needed to help young people and their parents. Originally a novel by ‘Young Adult’ writer Emily M. Danforth, the adaptation by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele was directed by Akhavan as her second feature. Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a teenager in Montana in 1993. A promising athlete, she has lost her parents in an accident and is living with her relatively young aunt, who appears to be a member of a strict religious community. I found the opening sequence in which Cameron and her girlfriend Coley attend a bible class to be one of the most terrifying things I’ve seen for a while. The leader tells all the teenagers that the thoughts that they have as adolescents are snares that will see them captured by evil. He basically tells them that as teenagers they must avoid anything that sounds like fun, because that way they will meet Satan. I think there are three possible responses. The first is to vow never to go anywhere near the bible class again. The second is to succumb to complete repression of sexual desire or an enquiring mind and risk the dangers of such behaviour. The third is to meet such idiocy head on and to try to countermand it. To be clear, I’m not decrying religious belief, only this pernicious kind of brain washing.
The film opts for a version of the third option. Cameron is ‘outed’ at her school prom and is sent by her aunt to ‘God’s Promise’, a Christian boarding school which offers a programme of conversion from ‘SSA’ (same sex attraction). The school is run by a brother and sister team. ‘The Reverend Rick’ (John Gallagher) is a relatively young man who was ‘saved’ from damnation when he was found in a gay bar. His sister, the older Dr. Lydia March (the wonderful Jennifer Ehle), is the supposedly scholarly director of the school. The main therapy tool, the basis of the school’s pedagogic method, is to ask the inmates to draw their own ‘iceberg’. This is the symbolic iceberg which has little showing above the waves. Most of it is below the waterline and every inmate is directed to draw in the ‘below the water’ part of the ‘berg all of those things that might have traumatised them into seeking a SSA. It’s nonsense of course, dangerous nonsense that does have a tragic outcome in the narrative.
Cameron is a reluctant hero who tries not to make (metaphorical) waves. She follows instruction after a fashion but seeks out what she thinks are the interesting people among the other inmates. These turn out to be a young bi-racial woman Jane (Sasha Lane) who has grown up in a commune and a Native American young man, Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who has a ‘second spirit’ but who has been abandoned by a father who is running for office and finds his son an embarrassment. Cameron discovers that they have found a species of cannabis that grows in the woods. Nothing goes unnoticed at God’s Promise and Dr. March is onto Cameron so she decides to abscond with Jane and Adam. The film doesn’t have a conventional narrative ‘resolution’ but we hope that Cameron will get the chance to live her own life, not one ‘constructed’ for her.
There are a number of questions/issues that the film raises. First is the film’s generic hybridity. It is referred to as a ‘coming of age’ story and sometimes as a form of teen pic – something I would call a youth picture. While watching it I was reminded strongly of two British films about repressive school/institutional narratives, Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (1968) and Alan Clarke’s Scum (1979), the first set in a boy’s public school and the second in a male borstal (detention centre for young offenders). The reference here is to a repressive regime which punishes anyone who steps out of line. In each case there is a rebellious figure and a ‘liberal’ inmate with the intelligence to challenge the system rationally. Staff members have different attitudes towards dealing with the inmates. But of course these are institutions housing young males only and there is no direct challenge to heterosexuality – although there is a rather beautiful young boy acting as a ‘fag’ for the head prefect in if . . . . and one boy is raped by another in Scum. Unlike in most high school movies, the romance in Cameron’s school life is cut short early on and Cameron’s own purpose at God’s Promise is to find herself and not to be defined by somebody else.
In a short Guardian piece, Guy Lodge asks why there are so few queer movies about young women (teenagers) when there seem to be several about young men. He comes to the conclusion that it is simply a matter of all the biases of mainstream cinema passing over into LGBTQ+ cinema and that there are not enough female queer directors making movies. It’s clear that Desiree Akhavan, who I think self-identifies as bisexual, agrees with him. The Guardian certainly thinks this is an important issue and carries three reviews of the film which won the Grand Jury Price at Sundance prize in 2018 (all by men) plus Lodge’s piece and an undercover ‘expose’ of gay conversion therapy by Julie Bindel. It’s here I think that the reactions to the film begin to make more sense. There is a possibly understandable reaction to the film in that it is so calm and reasonable in its depiction of what faces Cameron. As I noted above, I think that this is one of the film’s strengths. On the other hand, there seems good reasons why there should be more films exploring these identity issues for young women. Since 2018, I think there are more films made by women that might do this. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is free to view on BBC iPlayer in the UK until March 20th. It is widely available on other streamers and I recommend it.