About halfway through The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the title character’s peers at a gay-conversion camp start to lose their patience with her. “Your silence feels aggressive and judgmental, and it makes this place not safe,” says choirgirl Beth (Melanie Ehrlich). It’s obviously not her silence Beth objects to so much as her clear hesitance to take the plunge and submit herself to the backward, self-denying teachings the counselors immerse their students in. Me, I was just growing tired of her silence.
Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance-winning drama is based on the book of the same name by Emily M. Danforth, which follows a young girl who is sent to a conversion “therapy” program after her relationship with her best friend is outed at a Homecoming Dance. The year is 1993, and Akhavan deftly uses the awkward puffy sleeves and taffeta of that era to accentuate how poorly these little adult costumes fit on a student body that is still more comfortable dancing barefoot with their friends than play-acting heterosexuality. That doesn’t mean everyone’s also sneaking out to make out with their girlfriends, but Cameron is, and it gets her shipped off quickly.
We don’t actually see the confrontation that leads to this unhappy convalescence — we skip to Cameron and her aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler) pulling up to God’s Promise, a forlorn little collection of cabins tucked away in some geographically undefined wilderness. Ruth is all tight smiles and “it’s for the best”s, and one senses that she might not even be the person whose idea this was, but is dutifully going along with it at someone else’s behest. That is a wild guess, but the context in which Cameron is shipped away matters tremendously for the journey that is to ensue. Is it passive, and under pressure from a church community? Is it a flurry of tears and verbal — or physical — abuse? Either way, that would be a tense and tricky scene to direct, and one that could enrich the little we know about Cameron. Akhavan leaves it an elliptical blank.
Once Cameron arrives at the camp she is greeted by a smirking Sasha Lane, who snaps a Polaroid of her like the perfect quirky ’90s best friend. We meet the rest of the “disciples,” who meet for bible study and group-therapy sessions — an ensemble of teens who all fall on different points of a self-hating spectrum. Cameron allies herself quickly with the most rebellious and resistant in the group, Lane’s Jane Fonda (her real name, we are told) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck, simultaneously brimming with intensity and uncertainty). She tiptoes around the other students — including poor Beth, and her woefully oblivious, hockey-obsessed roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) — as well as chipper mustachioed Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and camp leader Dr. Lydia (Jennifer Ehle, one of the most exciting actresses working right now, who can terrify without lifting a finger). Again, Akhavan nails the ’90s time period, even in this cloistered milieu far from any kind of mainstream. There’s a haunting, mildewy sadness that pervades everything at God’s Promise, and eventually erupts into horrific tragedy.
But that tragedy doesn’t touch Cameron, because we know — and she knows, somewhere deep inside — that she’s not at risk of being consumed by it. Unfortunately that doesn’t come off as strength or defiance so much as inaction. Chloë Grace Moretz plays Cameron with such tasteful reserve, all blank stares and slightly agape mouth in the face of the most ardent down-is-up doctrine. Her emotional journey at God’s Promise doesn’t read much differently than that of a visiting reporter would. Cameron Post is the kind of film that openly courts falling into the cinematic limitations of an “issues film.” Akhavan’s sense of place and ensemble do a lot to counter that, but that specificity ends with the main character. Her silence, counter to Beth’s claim, doesn’t make for an unsafe space — on the contrary, The Miseducation of Cameron Post all too safe.