There's a scene in the Miseducation of Cameron Post that I've thought a lot about since I first saw it at a press screening back in February. Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is on kitchen duty at God's Promise, the gay conversation therapy camp she's been sent to after being caught fooling around with her best friend (Quinn Shepard) on prom night. She and the other "disciples" are listening to the prescribed Christian rock when suddenly...static. They turn the station, only to land on the early chords of "What's Up," by 4 Non Blondes, which leads right into a rousing group-wide sing-along headlined by Cameron, who belts out the chorus from atop the counter.
The scene does two things. First, it roots the action firmly in 1993 — four years before Ellen DeGeneres declared "Yep, I'm gay" on the cover of Time, and five years before Will & Grace premiered on NBC. But more significantly, it provides both the characters and the audience with a moment of pure, unadulterated joy in the darkest of contexts. It turns Cameron into more than a token gay character in a movie about LGBTQ+ trauma, and into a living, breathing person who loves early '90s alt-rock, Adidas track pants, and yes, also women.
Co-written and directed by Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior), and adapted from the 2012 novel by Emily M. Danforth, the film's strength lies in the way it seeks to humanize all of its characters, from Cameron and her "disciple" friends Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck) to their oppressors, God's Promise founder Lydia (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.).
The decision to send Cameron to God's Promise is made by her devout aunt Ruth, who's been caring for her niece since the death of her parents. And like any teenage girl, the first thing Cameron does is figure out where she fits in — turns out gay conversion camp isn't immune to cliques. There are two types of people seeking treatment at God's Promise. The first, like Jane (last name Fonda) and Adam (who goes by his Native American name, Red Eagle, when out of earshot of God's Promise leaders) are people who have been sent there by well-meaning relatives, who fear what they have been told is wrong. They nod their heads and go along with the program, mostly as a way to be left alone to smoke weed in the woods behind the camp. The others, like Cameron's roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) are truly sincere in their desire to rid themselves of what they feel are "unnatural" urges. They attack this quest with zeal, ratting out anyone who flouts the rules "for their own good."
Cameron, for her part, falls somewhere in between. It's not that she really believes she did anything wrong — but then why is everyone around her so sure she has? What if all she has to do is commit to the process? Would it be so bad to not feel this way anymore?
That early inner struggle resolves itself rather quickly once it becomes apparent that neither Reverend Rick nor Lydia have any idea what they're doing. The former, who "used to be" gay. uses positive and magical thinking, uplifting guitar strums and a healthy dose of Scripture to teach show his disciples the way. The latter, who supposedly "cured" him, handles the so-called therapy, a nonsense ritual of shaming in the name of God.
Of course, no amount of "blessercize" — a real program from the 1980s spearheaded by Marie Chapian, and the only approved workout for girls at God's Promise because traditional sports reportedly encourage their masculine energies — can pray the gay away. Cameron finds solace of sorts when she falls in with Jane and Adam. Others aren't so lucky.
The film's 90-minute run-time isn't filled with action. There's one moment of high drama, but overall, the tension relies on strong performances by the actors. Moretz, who's in almost every scene, carries the bulk of this emotional weight. She makes us ache at the magnitude of this burden, at times incensed by the injustice of it all, other times fragile, sad, or mired in self-doubt. As Reverend Rick, Gallagher is another standout. He's not a bad man; if anything, he's a victim as much as any of the teenagers he's responsible for, doomed to perform heterosexuality under a thin veneer of forced happiness. It's heartbreaking.
I wish Lane, whose performance in 2016's American Honey is seared into my brain, had been given as much to work with. Jane's most defining characteristics are that she has one leg and grew up in a commune. She clearly doesn't buy into the God's Promise hype, but we don't get much insight into her mindset. Still, Akhavan does give her some peppery dialogue that provides a dose of reality in this woo-woo Evangelical universe.
It's not irrelevant that the last major movie to tackle female gay conversion was 1999's But I'm A Cheerleader, starring Natasha Lyonne. Unlike Cameron Post, that movie was set in its own time, without the trappings of a period piece. (Embrace it, the 90s are period now.) Though not autobiographical, Danforth set the novel's action in her hometown of Miles City, Montana, during the time of her own youth. I understand Akhavan's desire to stay true to the author's vision, and the pull of being able to play songs with an instant nostalgic pull. (Just try not to expressively mouth "WHAT'S GOING ON" during the 4 Non Blondes sequence. I dare you.)
But part of me also kept wondering if the film could have added something new to this story by setting it in present day, at a time when gay marriage is legal, but still contentious — and in some cases actively opposed — in many parts of the country. Gay conversion isn't something that died with frosted tips and flat-form Steve Madden sandals — it's a practice that allegedly counts current Vice President Mike Pence among its supporters. Akhavan's film is important and addresses an issue that's obviously still relevant. But then why fight it out 25 years in the past?
Overall though, The Miseducation of Cameron Post packs an emotional punch that's hard to shake. Like a good '90s single, it's the kind of thing that lurks in the back of your brain, ready to resurface with new meaning when you least expect it.