Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Screenwriter: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele, book by Emily M. Danforth
Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr., Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/27/18
Opens: August 3, 2018
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals of Mental Disorders, which classifies emotional problems with codes, eliminated homosexuality as an illness in 1973 but still calling it a “sexual orientation disturbance.” In 1987 the term was dropped entirely. That did not stop millions of Americans from dissenting from that view, with religious organizations particularly mean-spirited in their outright disagreement with the shrinks. Our Supreme Court legalized gay marriage and legislatures codified gay rights in general, but as recently as the 1990’s, some parents, guardians and religious organizations pushed for what is called gay conversion therapy.
Desiree Akhavan, whose freshman feature “Appropriate Behavior” focuses on a Persian daughter struggling with her identity as a bisexual, is in her métier with “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” This feature is satirical but never lowers itself to sit-comish, three-laughs-a-minute clichés. Its theme should be old-hat to Americans who tuned into the weekly sitcom “Will & Grace” which arguably helped Americans to moderate and even reverse their antipathy to homosexuality. “Miseducation” has humorous moments but at base it’s a serious drama about adolescents, some miserable not because of their so-called same sex attraction, but because elements of society continue to denigrate them to this day and beyond. Their parents and guardians—not the type to carry signs “I’m pride of my gay son”—would rather to spend their money on trying to “cure” their children.
Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz), the orphaned title character who prefers to be called Cam, is sent by Ruth (Kerry Butler), her guardian to “God’s Promise,” a camp that deals with curing what is not in any way an emotional illness. She is outed as gay after the boy who escorts her to the school prom discovers her in the back seat of his car making out with her best friend Coley (Quinn Shephard). Internalizing the views of the straight adults in her life and believing that she needs saving, she is impressed by the camp’s counselor, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who claims to have been “cured” and Rick’s sister Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), who runs the camp.
The biggest problem with God’s Promise is not that it fails to “cure” young people with same sex attractions, but in a way, the reverse. It causes them, or at least some, to hate themselves for having a “sickness,” a hatred that will turn one boy into such a self-destructive act that the camp may be closed by the authorities. Most of the action revolves around Cameron’s relationships with the others, especially Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), who in one scene removes weed from her prosthetic leg, Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), whose hair is shorn by the director, and pixie-like Erin (Emily Skeggs). Surprisingly each camper gets a same-sex roommate instead of a private room but Lydia and Rick make calls at random times with flashlights to ensure that nobody is “sinning” against God.
The strangest statement is by Lydia, who announces that “there is no such thing as homosexuality,” preferring to believe as do some deplorable Americans that being gay is a choice. Twenty-year-old Chloë Grace Moritz comes across as the least idiosyncratic member of the group, preferring to be a good listener rather than acting out. She does come out of her shell near the conclusion in a dramatic move that she makes with Adam Red Eagle and Jane Fonda.
Director Akhavan does not play around with melodrama, preferring to let the camp’s wrongheadedness play out to an organically believable climax. She shows a genuine affection for the adolescents and for Reverend Rick, even holding back against demonizing the director—who also displays an affection for her charges. The film fits right into the Sundance Festival scheme where it won the U.S. dramatic grand jury prize. Get the book from Amazon for eight bucks.
Unrated. 91 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B