This funny, emotional story hits all the right spots.
When thinking about a subject for a coming of age story, gay conversion would not be the first idea to spring to mind for most film-makers. But this is not the case for Iranian-American director Desiree Akhavan and her latest offering The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a film that has the genre conventions of John Hughes but also the artistic visual poetry of Lynne Ramsey. Both the former and the latter are cited as influences and although it seems like a mismatch of influences at first glance, the combination comes off remarkably well on-screen. Full of wit, but also incredibly poignant, Akhavan’s film jabs at an absurd scheme alongside examining the impact of changing someone’s sexuality.
Adapted from Emily M Danforth’s 2012 novel and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) a teen who is packed up and sent off by her Aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler) to a therapy centre after getting caught embracing with another girl in a car during prom night. Upon being accepted as ‘an official disciple of God’s promise’ by the two siblings that run the centre, Cameron willingly partakes in the program but refuses to bow down to the teachings. She is not alone as she meets a group of similar minded sinners including amputee Jane (Sasha Lane), who stashes weed in her prosthetic leg, and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American that compares himself to rock legend David Bowie, and the three form a bond as they each find ways to joke and help each through the circumstances. It’s through this bonding that some of the film’s wry humour is provided as Adam compares Lydia to a Disney villain, ‘only this one won’t let you jerk off’.
Akhavan and co-screenwriter Cecilia Frugiuele highlight the fundamental flaws of gay conversion through comic irony but mixing it with a hint of sympathy. In one of the group sessions, a boy talks about how he used self-pleasure as a coping mechanism but stopped when he found out it was a sin. The subject matter is presented cynically, but there is a sad truth to be found when Cameron discovers others who are changing their identity for the supposed greater good. In another scene where Cameron is sitting out on the football pitch, she starts to wonder whether her sexuality is down to confusion because of her past string of relationships which the film flashes back to; the scene is in equal measure impressive, uncomfortable, and tearjerking to watch.
Most of these underpinning moments come down to Moretz who puts in one of her best performances to date. It’s hard to see the actress who previously played as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass because of the mature manner in which Cameron is portrayed; Moretz’s performance is not an overstatement of emotions but rather an understatement in holding them back and knowing when to let go. The supporting cast are also terrific and deserve as much praise. Jennifer Ehle and John Gallagher Jr are creepy as the leaders as they quietly project authority to their campers. Stone brings fire to Jane and well executes many of the comic lines, and Goodluck does well as Adam with his cynical views cutting through when the film starts to bog down tonally.
But these actors would not be performing at this high standard without Akhavan’s direction. It deserves full praise as she stretches her talent for only her second feature, an extraordinary achievement and indicating her potential as a rising star for the future. Whilst her previous semi-autobiographical movie Appropriate Behaviour is about the rekindle of a relationship, the grittier subject of The Miseducation of Cameron Post requires much more depth due to the thematics at play and she handles it with ease. Not only does Akhavan’s direction help to get out great performances, but her own sexuality gives the film that personal touch which many coming-of-age stories thrive on.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not trying to make radical changes to an already timeless genre, but by using the conventional templates and weaving them into a dystopian but real scenario, it makes for a gripping emotional drama that leaves us pondering and self-aware of these therapy centres, which are still around to this day. It takes its topic very seriously, but it manages to apply the right amount of comic value that does not deflate its message: changing someone’s values can have ever-lasting consequences. Seek it out because it is one of the hidden gems of the year.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, directed by Desiree Akhavan, is distributed in the UK by Vertigo Releasing, Certificate 15.