In her new film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, writer/director Desiree Akhavan takes on the volatile issue of religiously based gay conversion therapy. These are programs, usually based on fundamentalist Christian dogma, that attempt to turn people away from their same-sex attraction. It is also a process that is being increasingly banned for being emotionally and psychologically abusive.
Cameron Post ( portrayed by the luminous Chloe Grace Moretz ) is a soft-spoken, good-hearted teenage girl who is awakening to her identity as a lesbian. She is an orphan being raised by her evangelical aunt and uncle, and she is beginning to embark on her first loving relationship with her best friend Coley. However, when they are caught fooling around in a car outside a school dance, Cameron is immediately carted off to a place called God's Promise, an evangelical Christian camp whose purpose is to convert gay teens to Christian-oriented heterosexuality. Cameron plays along, inhabiting the role of nice girlbut it's clear that she's not particularly interested in being "cured."
While the kids are mostly well-treated at God's Promise, it becomes clear in short order that the camp is structured like a cult intent on indoctrinating these mostly confused and insecure kids. Privileges such as making phone calls home must be earned through good behavior and proper thinking. Education is religiously skewed ( no evolution taught here ), and group therapy sessions are nothing more than chances to pressure the kids to live up to God's supposed expectations of them.
While she tries to get along, Cameron inevitably becomes friends with two other misfits, Jane ( a brassy Sasha Lane ) and Adam Red Eagle ( an earnest Forrest Goodluck ). Both are unapologetically gay. They got a small pot garden in the woods surrounding the camp, the fruits of which Jane stashes in her prosthetic leg. Jane is perfectly fine being a lesbian, while Adam respects his Native American heritage by defining himself as a Lakota Two Spirit.
Akhavan, who co-wrote the script with producer Cecilia Fruguiele from the novel by Emily M. Danforth, did not intend to make a political screed against religious conversion therapythough there's no question the process is both futile and destructive. Her focus is primarily on Cameron's emotional journey. She is a teenager, so for all her strength of character, Cameron is subject to the insecurities and self-doubts that come with the territory.
In an especially heart-rending moment we see how devastated Cameron is to learn that her erstwhile girlfriend, following the dictates of her parents, is turning her back on her relationship with Cameron. It's an emotionally brutal moment, but she survives it.
Akhavan also treats the other characters with gentle compassion. The other kids at the camp, for all their confusion and gullibility and self-loathing, are not innately bad. They're merely struggling to become what's expected of them. And the camp administrators are likewise drawn with compassion ( except for one particularly dislikable therapist. The camp's spiritual leaderRev. Rick ( John Gallagher Jr. ), who claims to have himself successfully transitioned from gay to straight with the help of Godhonestly believes he is helping these kids.
But Akhavan is nothing if not intent on being honest about the reality of these camps. One boy is denied permission to return home because his father doesn't feel he is masculine enough to be acceptable in his house. As a result, the boy attempts suicide by severing his genitals. Reverend Rick, in his attempt to counsel a grieving Cameron, breaks down into tears, admitting he has no answers, either about the attempted suicide or about what he's trying to accomplish. Clearly, Rev. Rick's doubts about himself and what he is doing are struggling to come out, but he won't let them.
Subsequent to this incident, a social worker comes in to question the kids. Are they being well-treated? Are they being abused? The obvious answer is that, of course, they are being well-treated. But Cameron answers with a question that cuts to a core emotional truth: "How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?"
Akhavan's remarkable film asks that and many more crucial questions. But it also provides answersthe only answers humanely possible.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, directed by Desiree Akhavan, opens Friday, Aug. 17, at local venues such as Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.