Because vice-president Mike Pence apparently once believed in it, there’s been some talk lately about so-called “gay conversion therapy,” a process by which therapists and/or religious leaders would attempt to change the sexual orientation of homosexuals. Long since disproven – and in fact deemed dangerous by the American Psychiatric Association – it seems mildly quaint to make a movie about gay conversion therapy in this day and age, but Desiree Akhavan’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is just the first of two 2018 films dedicated to exploiting this process.
Unlike 2016’s “Loving” – which told the story of the 1967 Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage – “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” doesn’t seem to take its subject matter seriously enough to be fully engaging. In other words, Akhavan and co-screenwriter Cecilia Frugiuele appear to be laughing at the entire process of gay conversion therapy, particularly as it was often couched in religious conversion – rather than treating the outdated social norms of the day with respect, as director Jeff Nichols did in “Loving.”
Chloe Grace Moretz gives the best performance so far in her young career as Cameron, a mildly jock-ish teen whose boyfriend catches her making out with another girl during prom. Sent to a remote gay conversion therapy center in rural Montana by her religious aunt, Cameron doesn’t seem to fit in. Her roommate (and others she meets initially) appear to be very “sold” on the program. They all relate well to the community’s leader, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), a kind and gentle man who seems to have a genuine interest in his subjects, although the fact that he wears his religion on his sleeve is not only grating but dubious and affected. I get that condemning gay conversion therapy to the proverbial trash heap of societal misfires is the goal here, but I believe that goal could have been accomplished without presenting Christian leaders as such dimwitted lemmings.
Fortunately for Cameron, she becomes fast friends with two others who don’t seem so gung ho about the entire process – Adam Red Eagle, a half-breed played by Forrest Goodluck (Hawk in “The Revenant”), whose Native American beliefs are at odds with some of Reverend Rick’s teachings, and Jane Fonda (Yes, that’s the character’s name, for no apparent reason), played by Sasha Lane, who made such a great debut in “American Honey.” Originally hitting it off because they are the only dope-smokers in the group, the three harbor misgivings about the whole idea of sexual conversion therapy, yet they are unable to change their fates because of the desires of their parents and families.
Resigned to accept their circumstances, the three learn how to fool the system by telling Reverend Rick and the group’s founder and psychiatrist, Dr. Lydia, played as sort of a Nurse Ratched taskmaster by stage actress Jennifer Ehle, exactly what they want to hear. Still, Cameron, Jane, and Adam must suffer the wrath of Dr. Lydia along with the others. While the Reverend Rick character comes off as a “God is wonderful” caricature, Dr. Lydia doesn’t seem to be based in reality at all. Nurse Ratched (“One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest”) was genuinely terrifying, Dr. Lydia is presented as nothing more than cruel and heartless. While I know nothing about gay conversion therapy, I have to believe it was typically administered in more of a caregiving fashion than in that of a prison warden mentality. In this respect, Reverend Rick is the more believable character, although the constant religious references are laughably overutilized.
So rather than an indictment of a long since disproven method of sexual orientation conversion, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” actually succeeds more as a “friendship” movie. In other words, even in the darkest of circumstances, friendships can grow and blossom. That’s a nice message, albeit not likely the one Akhavan is attempting to convey. Furthermore, if a sense of belonging is the big takeaway from this movie, a far superior offering would be Andrea Arnold’s 2016 indie “American Honey” – the picture that made Sasha Lane a star.
I do like the comradery of the three leads, and this is a star-making turn for Chloe Grace Moretz, who subtly shows her distrust in the group’s leadership and her anger toward her aunt for committing her in the first place. It’s almost as though Moretz is acting in a different (and better) picture than the finished product. Akhavan should have softened the stereotypical presentation of the religion angle – to prevent Reverend Rick and the enthusiastic students from coming off as empty-headed blowhards – and given gay conversion therapy a modicum of respect. Remember, almost none of us believes interracial marriage is a threat to society; but in “Loving,” Jeff Nichols bestowed a certain amount of dignity upon that now-dated belief. I believe Akhavan could have accomplished the same here. Moretz’ performance is deserving of a better film.