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“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
FilmRise
Opens August 3, Quad Cinema and Landmark at 57 West

 

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A Potent Story of Kids On the Edge In Short Term 12

Like The Wire or Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s oeuvre, Short Term 12 is the kind of film that sounds agonizingly depressing on paper but mesmerizes onscreen. It’s a delicate yet passionate creation, modest in scope but almost overwhelming in its emotional intricacy, ambition, and resonance. Easily one of the best films so far this year, it’s a nearly perfect blend of pimple-faced naturalism, righteous moral fury, nuanced social insight, and unsentimental but devastating drama.

A glammed-down Brie Larson is luminous as Grace, a supervisor at a short-term foster-care facility, where she and three other idealistic but exhausted twentysomethings care for a handful of minors the county has yet to place. Sweetly sturdy Grace, gentle dreamboat Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), matter-of-fact Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz), and newbie Nate (Rami Malek) have fascinatingly fluid roles at Short Term 12, smoothly switching from older sibling or camp counselor to orderly or bloodstain cleaner. Grace and her crew exercise firm control over their charges, some of whom cope better than others. But they’re hamstrung by the relative powerlessness of their low-status positions, forced to stand by while the kids’ lives are administered by well-meaning therapists and social workers whose knowledge is more academic than actual.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton elicits strong, unaffected performances from his child actors. The film focuses on two in particular: Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a 17-year-old terrified of aging out of foster care when his birthday arrives in a week, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a creative younger teen whose raccoon eyes and poses of studied rebellion cover up some serious bruising and scars. “I don’t really like wasting time on short-term relationships,” she announces on her first day, asking for help by pretending not to. Marcus and Jayden immediately demand sympathy not because they’re children, but because they’re such believable ones.

Grace is initially drawn to Jayden for the girl’s gift with a sketch pad and pencil, but as the film unclenches its fist, loosening its secrets, it’s clear the two have much more in common than doodling. Their similarities thrust Grace into psychological chaos and heroic action, and the traumas the characters have been so afraid to reveal aren’t reductive, as in so many other films where a childhood ordeal is flattened into an explanation for a grown-up’s heroic motivations or character flaws. Rather, the utterance—or even the acknowledgement—of these secrets provides an Aristotelian catharsis: It’s as curative for the audience as for the characters.

Jayden’s presence also forces Grace to deal with the long-term effects of her own abusive past—strongly hinted at early in the film, when she gives a hard, reflexive slap across the face to the colleague/secret boyfriend who climbs atop her one night for a bout of cuddly lovemaking. A surprise pregnancy amplifies Grace’s hopes and fears. As the shadows of the latter loom larger—and her abuser suddenly threatens nearer—her relationship and her sense of self unravel, just when she’s needed most by Jayden.

Short Term 12‘s greatest achievement is its ability to paint a double portrait of abuse—a larger exploration of the enduring effects of violent trauma, as well as an intimate depiction of a damaged but hopeful and persevering individual. It’s a bold and sensitive vision—and one that shouldn’t be missed.

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Young Men’s Pens Do Politics and War in Farragut North and Bury the Dead

Irwin Shaw wrote Bury the Dead, a 1936 play now revived by the Transport Group, when he was just 23. Beau Willimon first conceived Farragut North, produced by the Atlantic, at the tender age of 27. (With rare exceptions like Georg Büchner, Shelagh Delaney, or Alfred Jarry, who wrote their best work at 20 or earlier, playwrights don’t come much younger.) Though some 70 years—and considerable variations in theme and tone—separate Shaw and Willimon, they both offer plays by and about young men. Each work concerns men who can’t or won’t grow up.

At once absorbing and facile, Farragut North, drawing on Willimon’s experiences as a Howard Dean campaign worker during the 2004 presidential primaries, follows the changing fortunes of Stephen (John Gallagher Jr.), a primary candidate’s press secretary. Though a journalist calls Stephen “a wizened 25,” he wears his Brooks Brothers suits with all the dash and authority of a bar mitzvah boy—he’s a political veteran but a perpetual adolescent. Arrogant and brainy, he believes he can spin his way out of any situation: He tells a paramour, “You shouldn’t like me. I’m not a good person,” and sounds positively proud.

Like Willimon’s Katrina-set Lower Ninth, Farragut North has a self-consciously Aristotelian structure. As the philosopher dictated, the play “confines itself to a single revolution of the sun” and features a hero undone by his own misjudgment. Under Doug Hughes’s direction, it suffers from some of the same qualities that defeat Stephen: a slick cleverness and a smear of self-satisfaction. And like its lead character, the show lacks an understanding of women: Stephen’s love interest, 19-year-old Molly (a game Olivia Thirlby), seems a product of male fantasy—or perhaps the world is teeming with articulate, buxom, politically engaged teens eager for casual sex.

The ensemble’s strong, but with the exception of Gallagher Jr., most of the actors play a gloss on characters they’ve explored on film and TV. As the campaign manager, Chris Noth offers a paunchier, tobacco-chewing Mr. Big; Isiah Whitlock Jr. revisits the corrupt politico he acted on The Wire; and Thirlby gives a distorted version of the shrewd high-schooler she played in Juno. Perhaps this isn’t accidental: The script has long been optioned by a film company with Leonardo DiCaprio discussed for Stephen’s role. Hughes’s production seems an elongated screen test, though Willimon may not be altogether ready for his close-up.

While Stephen will likely talk himself into a cushy consulting job or a grad-school sinecure, the characters in Bury the Dead lack such pleasant fall-back options. Six men—some as young as 20—are dead, victims of the war “that is to begin tomorrow night.” Though corpses, the men refuse to lie down in their graves. “Maybe there’s too many of us under the ground now,” one soldier muses. “Maybe the earth can’t stand it no more.”

With the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan still rising, such themes seem entirely timely. Apparently, director Joe Calarco doesn’t agree. He’s appended a long and inane introduction to Shaw’s script, a contemporary “town hall meeting,” in which “Our Host” (Donna Lynne Champlin) distributes cookies and organizes a staged reading of Shaw’s play. The conceit’s lamentably forced, but once Calarco drops it, the play doesn’t strain for relevance. Unlike Willimon’s script, which concludes in tones of cynical resignation, Shaw’s ends with a cry for justice, as a soldier’s wife insists, “Tell ’em. Tell ’em all to stand up.” As the applause began, quite a few members of the audience obliged her.

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ELECTION WOES

Four years on, what most of us recall from Howard Dean’s campaign are those bulbous eyes, that shock of gray hair, and that strangled cry in the wake of the Iowa primary. But playwright Beau Willimon, a one-time Dean staffer, apparently has some more acute memories. Drawing on them to fashion this anguished political thriller, titled Farragut North, Willimon describes the moral and electoral challenges facing a young press secretary, Stephen (played by the marvelous John Gallagher Jr.), who comes to realize that his personal choices may result in distinctly adverse publicity for his candidate. Olivia Thirlby plays a barely legal love interest, and Chris Noth works his smarmy charms as a veteran strategist. Director Doug Hughes manages the campaign.

Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 & 7 p.m. Starts: Oct. 22. Continues through Nov. 29, 2008