Photo courtesy of FilmRise.
Reparative therapy meant to transform homosexuality into heterosexuality can result in catastrophic psychological repercussions. Desiree Akhavan’s keenly absorbing film The Miseducation of Cameron Post not only portrays such repercussions credibly, it enters into the mindset of those who conduct such therapies with startling accuracy.
The 1980s setting is a rural Christian-based compound called God’s Promise, where teenagers are sent by parents and step-parents to undergo a regiment of religiously-centered therapy sessions (including art therapy) and team duties such as meal preparation meant to re-orient them into heterosexuality. Compound standards that boys should be interested in sports and girls should be laying the groundwork to be a good homemaker point to gender code expectations that strenuously cohere with the heteronormative.
This “conversion therapy” in effect means the teens are compelled to feel not only ashamed of their same-sex desires, but to be imprinted psychically with deeply layered inner fears that something is mortally wrong with their innate homoerotic feelings and romantic, or even puppy love, for someone of the same gender. The intensification of this is a form of mental rape and the entrenchment of primal doubts about one’s worth and salvation. As these programmed feelings gnaw away at those subjected to such coercion, feelings of despair, insanity, and impulses toward suicide are dramatically increased. It’s crucial for these therapists to foster a myth that the mind and physical body are separate and that the mind, aided by religious tenets, is capable of thinking out of existence what is hardwired within it biologically. That’s absurd of course, but a common belief, even among many who are nonreligious and liberal.
The teens are made to see themselves as afflicted with the sin of what the program calls SSA (same-sex attraction). It points to the reductionist mentality of the compound overlords. It should be noted as well that the compound’s power structure’s view of Christianity is also reductionist. The possibility that the paths to God (in Christianity and other faiths) are infinite and the dimensions of sexuality are mysterious and beautiful are not within the leadership’s apprehension. (And we get an idea just why they don’t understand this as the film’s story unravels.)
Chloe Grace Moretz plays protagonist Cameron, one of the kids shipped off to “be fixed”. Because the actress has played this role at age 20, some have expressed that she is too old. But I disagree. Granted, she does play a teen who despite the barrage of indoctrination and guilt weaponizing, nonetheless maintains a sense of herself. Moretz is fully credible and finds revealing moments as a person essentially incarcerated, and who therefore realizes she has to play her captors’ game if she is to survive with her psyche intact. There are certainly older and younger teenagers who are capable of playing such a game, so the criticism on this count against the younger looking older actors in the film is moot.
Moretz beguiles as a young intelligent teen buffeted about by circumstances like a ship in a storm, trying her best not to be drowned. She brings to mind some of cinema’s classic luminous portrayals by women of depth: Dominique Sanda in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Barbara Stanwyck in Executive Suite, Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago, and Nastassja Kinski in Tess. Yes. Moretz is that superb! If she continues to be serious as an actress, we can expect further fine work.
The antagonist is the darkly magnificent Jennifer Ehle as the searing Lydia, who obsessively controls the therapy sessions and program structure. She draws out humiliating testimonies from the teens, sees that rooms are policed to make sure roommates are not getting too close, and confronts any suspicion of homoerotic vibrations. It is a brilliant performance, so convincing in its oppressiveness that some audience members actually may feel drawn to the grimly charismatic facilitator. If you close your eyes while listening to Lydia, and forget the misapplied Christian context, you may find that there are many nonreligious people who also hold similar stern erotophobic views against sex in general. Moreover, it is important to remember that all major religions continue to have powerful injunctions against homosexuality and fornication.
In a shrewd touch, Lydia’s “ex-gay” brother and lackey, Reverend Rick, is played with starry-eyed rationalization by John Gallagher, Jr. Methinks the domineering lady’s compulsion to maintain that her brother stays militantly straight, betrays some questionable feelings toward him that she has submerged to her subconscious. And that she would then go far as to organize a religious based business to further that goal, is truly eyebrow-raising if you think about it.
The supporting cast is uniformly brilliant. In their very eyes, we behold the struggle against the indoctrination (Ashley Connor’s camera work captures this magnetically). It’s heartbreaking because they don’t have the inner resources at such an early age to combat and counter it. These wonderful performances include Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, and Quinn Shephard as the girl who Cameron was first caught in the sexual act with that sent her to God’s Promise.
Julian Wass’s subtle music, Sarah Shaw’s editing, and Connor’s camera unify to envelop Miseducation with an atmosphere profoundly intimate, yet appropriately claustrophobic. It gives the film a horror/thriller kind of edge.
Akhavan has guided Miseducation exquisitely with an intellectual vision bigger than one might see at first blush. Her scrupulously observed screenplay, co-written with Cecilia Frugiuele from the Emily M. Danforth novel, isn’t only a solid account of homophobia gone hysterical. It shows how fear of sex in general and awkward, innocent stumbling around in pursuit of it are reflexively deemed to be wrong. This is not good for a society that wants to last.
These writers are cautioning us to not judge harshly, because we as humans, especially in our youth, are fragile and precious. (The same is true as we get older but most develop a thicker skin to combat it.) In this case, the secular world can take a lesson and check their own wrath and scorn rather than say something like “it’s those Christian homophobes who are the problem, but I’m not like that.” Ironically, one can certainly see evidence nowadays of people who think of themselves as very liberal and tolerant about sexuality and eroticism simply because they are pro-queer or queer themselves. But they not be. Some such self-deceptive professions of openness may be more akin to the God’s Promise cult than one thinks. My suspicions are that some of this film’s critics who see it as oversimplified but a good liberal film nonetheless, are in this camp. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not oversimplified. It is accurate.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
St. Anthony Main Theatre, SE 115 Main St., Minneapolis