“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” Exposes the Cruel Idiocy of Gay Conversion Therapy

At the gay conversion therapy center at the heart of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the teenage charges wear uniforms: blue button-down shirts and navy skirts for girls, pants for boys. The outfits are remarkably similar to those worn by Red Sparrow’s young Russian spies in training. Blind obedience and conformity are at the heart of both scenarios — submerging the self in service of a higher power. At least the spies get to fuck.

Based on the same-named 2012 novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post stars Chloë Grace Moretz as the title character, an orphaned eleventh-grader living with her aunt and uncle in Montana circa 1993. (There’s wood paneling galore.) Directed by Desiree Akhavan, and written by Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, the film takes a grown-up approach to its young-adult material; this is a somewhat somber YA adaptation, with teenage subjects who are fully formed and all too human.

It opens with close-up shots of young hands gripping copies of the Holy Bible for Teens while a white-haired pastor warns, “You are at an age where you are especially vulnerable to evil.” The pastor keeps talking, in voiceover, as Cameron and her bible-study friend Coley (Quinn Shephard) bike to Cameron’s house, shut the door to her bedroom, and furiously make out. Cameron and Coley go to prom with their boyfriends, then thrash joyfully together on the dance floor before stealing away to the back seat of a car, where they smoke pot and fool around — until Cameron’s boyfriend opens the door and catches them in the act. This precipitates Cameron’s enrollment at God’s Promise, a Christian gay conversion therapy center located in a remote cabin in the woods. The setting is appropriate; Cameron Post is a kind of horror film, in its own way.

There, Cameron meets Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who cheerfully rummages through her belongings and confiscates her Breeders cassette. They’re not singing in praise of the Lord, now, are they? “He used to struggle with same-sex attraction,” Cameron’s chipper roommate, Erin (a scene-stealing Emily Skeggs) divulges — until his sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), intervened. After successfully converting Rick, Erin explains, Lydia set up shop and began spreading her gospel.

Moretz is perfectly cast as a girl who sees through the bullshit and instinctively understands that most adults don’t know what they’re doing. She’s not confused; she knows what she wants and who she is. Cameron doesn’t say much about her identity, but she and Akhavan show us. She has recurring dreams about Coley, and in these scenes and flashbacks, the director outlines a budding teenage romance that makes the viewer feel the steam heat of these stolen encounters. Akhavan is a subtle but deft storyteller — there is no external narration, no voiceovers or inner monologues explicating what we’re seeing. We need only see a brief overhead shot from the top of the stairs, of Cameron’s aunt and uncle sitting in their living room with that white-haired pastor, her aunt nodding and crying, to know what’s happening and why.

At the conversion center, Cameron befriends Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck); she decides she can trust them when she catches them smoking weed together. Through the stories of how these teens ended up at God’s Promise, Cameron Post suggests the rigid hegemony of American life, the all-too-common story of religious belief perverted in the service of fitting in. Jane was born to hippie parents and grew up on a commune, but when her mother married an evangelical Christian, Jane was shipped off to God’s Promise; Adam was born into the Lakota tribe — a community that recognizes a third, in-between gender — but became a problem once his father decided to go into politics and thus converted to Christianity.

There’s not one mediocre performance in the film. Ehle is terrifically severe as the ruler of her little clan; when she enters the classroom to meet her newest “disciple,” the room goes quiet as her heels slowly stalk the floor. Chastising Adam to get his hair off his face, Lydia yanks it back herself and ties it up. “There’s no hiding from God,” she intones. At least, not at God’s Promise; a flashlight roving over Cameron and Erin at night, to assure they’re safe in their separate beds, is a recurring image. It also functions as a callback to the film’s devastating inciting incident, when Cameron’s boyfriend opens the car door, interrupting her and Coley’s bliss and shedding a probing light on their warm, dark secret.

Akhavan doesn’t belabor the point, but there’s wicked humor in the fact that all the kids at God’s Promise (and Rick) are so undeniably gay. In one therapy session, Cameron can only laugh when a boy takes one look at her and declares her an obvious “dyke.” Erin is a diehard Vikings fan who earnestly throws herself into a workout routine with the help of an exercise video called “Blessercize,” giving all her conflicted feelings and hormonal energy a gender-appropriate outlet. They’re just so horny, the poor things!

In the end, Cameron Post is a damning indictment of institutional Christianity and adults who make it their mission to tamp down kids’ spirits in the name of God. Akhavan shrewdly captures the claustrophobia of organized religion — the oppressive sense that nothing and no one can exist outside the context of Christianity, that we are all merely vessels for an extremely particular God, human instincts be damned. As the film so beautifully, and painfully, illustrates, when there’s no one to turn to, you turn on yourself.

 The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Opens August 3, Quad Cinema and Landmark at 57 West


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Four Movies at the Tribeca Film Festival That Don’t Pretend

A film-within-a-film is a well-worn narrative conceit, but one that seems more complicated in the context of a documentary. Madeleine Sackler’s extraordinary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It was shot entirely at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis. (The occasional animated interludes were done by Yoni Goodman, of Waltz With Bashir.) The incarcerated men there are both subjects and filmmakers in Sackler’s construction, talking about their lives in front of the camera while learning film lingo and devices from the classroom environment Sackler creates.

We sit in on the filmmaking lectures Sackler delivers to the inmates. (At the same time this was going on, she shot a separate feature at the prison: the narrative piece O.G., starring Jeffrey Wright and also showing at Tribeca.) During the sessions, the men interview each other about their experiences and discuss what they want to add to the final cut of the movie. We witness the canny results first-hand, as when the men decide to finally share — midway through, after we’ve gotten to know them — their sentences and crimes in the form of onscreen text just below their faces. Poverty, abuse, addiction, and racism all play familiar roles in these stories. But the haunting exchange that best illustrates the divide between the men and the director (who hails from a wealthy Connecticut family), along with most of us who see the film, comes when one of the inmates expresses incredulity at the fact that none of Sackler’s former high-school classmates have either been murdered or killed someone.

He asks, “No one?”

She replies, with certainty and sadness, “No one.”

The sharp cast of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” helps to cohere its verbose source material.

Writer-director Desiree Akhavan, whose 2014 film Appropriate Behavior (in which she starred) was a loose, autobiographical jaunt through queer women’s experiences in New York City, could not have picked a more different approach for her second feature, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). An adaptation (Akhavan wrote it with Cecilia Frugiuele) of Emily M. Danforth’s popular YA novel, the film takes place in Nineties Montana, mostly in an isolated teen residential program that implements Evangelical Christian, anti-queer “reparative” therapy. The script omits the verbose source material’s many tangents and spins its lively, last third into a more cohesive whole.

I had been worried in the lead-up that Chloë Grace Moretz would be too femme to play Cameron, who is a butch athlete in the book. But Moretz’s appalled face in reaction to the program’s dogma, along with her other responses to life in the facility, won me over. A poker-faced “good” is how Cameron invariably replies to staff questions about how she’s progressing. After Erin, a fellow “disciple” (as the teens in the program are called), catches her shoplifting, Moretz’s Cameron quickly adds a disingenuous, “I feel so ashamed,” to keep Erin from telling staff. Sasha Lane, whom writer-director Andrea Arnold famously plucked from the mass of college students during spring break to star in American Honey, proves a delightful comic presence in Miseducation as Jane, another resistant teen at the facility. Her skeptical, liquid stares say as much as her expertly delivered punchlines.

The repressive setting would be, in a less nuanced film, a site of unadulterated horror. But Cameron, Jane, and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), like queer people through the ages, find ways to bond, joke, and help each other through the circumstances. When something terrible does happen (eliciting gasps in the audience, as it does for readers of the book), the experience cements the three together with newfound determination.

The killing of a trans woman in the Philippines galvanizes outrage in “Call Her Ganda.”

Call Her Ganda, a documentary from Filipinx American PJ Raval (Trinidad), covers the trial of an American Marine, Joseph Scott Pemberton, for the killing of Jennifer Laude, a trans woman in Olongapo City, Philippines. The 2014 incident occurred in a motel across the street from the disco where the two had met earlier one evening. The case, and the dismissive reaction to it, prompts outrage from Jennifer’s devoted sister, mother, and fiancé, as well as a spirited legal battle from the family’s pro bono lawyer, Virgie Suarez. As the murder of Rita Hester did in the U.S. two decades ago, Laude’s death galvanizes the trans community to take to the streets in protest. Owing to colonialist influence, any crime American service members committed in the Philippines had never previously been brought to court. Pemberton’s lawyers attempt to justify his actions as “trans panic,” an enraging defense that’s been used in the U.S. in murder cases with trans women victims.

The doc also follows trans Filipina investigative journalist Meredith Talusan, who has lived in the United States since she was a child, as she returns to her birthplace to extensively report on the case for VICE, the Guardian, and Buzzfeed. Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, known globally for the mass killing of his own citizenry, even plays a peripheral role, manipulating anti-colonial sentiment around the case (and others like it) to win votes. In the end, the verdict appeases neither side, but it has had lasting effects on the trans community and has set a long-overdue precedent for holding individuals in the American military responsible for heinous crimes.

Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, 79, is the focus of the moving doc “Every Act of Life.”

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional release of Every Act of Life (written and directed by Jeff Kaufman), a wonderful documentary on the prolific playwright Terrence McNally. McNally’s life has the sweep of an epic novel, except that the novel’s inevitable movie version could never have as much star power as his life did. Edward Albee was his first boyfriend. Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald both affirm they wouldn’t have their careers without him. Angela Lansbury was the one who told him to get sober. He even had a brief, secret relationship with the acclaimed playwright Wendy Wasserstein. (His brother reports that seeing the two of them in a romantic kiss made him think, “He has a girlfriend?!”) He also was one of the first playwrights to put queer life and characters front-and-center in his work. Even though, as his husband, Thomas Kirdahy asserts, cancer surgery has left McNally with a total of less than one functioning lung, he’s still energetic and writing new pieces — and having them produced.

The film conveys a refreshing lack of pretense about the work of being a refined artist. Over two decades into McNally’s stellar career, when the script for Lips Together, Teeth Apart — a highly anticipated play for “his favorite actors” — was handed to the ensemble, only one member, Christine Baranski, summoned up the courage to tell him it sucked. McNally took it home, rewrote it, and it ran for over a year Off-Broadway. Four years later, he wrote Master Class, which went on to win Tonys for its stars (Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald) and for McNally himself — another inspiring chapter in a life full of them.