The Miseducation of Cameron Post: a sketchy work on psychological abuse and repression in a gay conversion centre

Desiree Akhavan, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” (2018)

Set in 1993, this coming-of-age drama follows a teenaged girl’s sudden entry into a cruel world of psychological abuse after she and another teenaged girl, with whom she is having a secret romantic affair, are exposed by the other girl’s boyfriend in their township located somewhere in conservative semi-rural America. Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) is sent by her aunt to God’s Promise, a camp run by Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her reverend brother Rick (John Gallagher Jr) as a gay conversion centre for teenagers. There, Cameron befriends two teenagers Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck) and the three bond over a shared scepticism of the camp’s avowed purpose and its practices. Those practices include various group therapy sessions conducted by Dr Marsh who is revealed as cold, remote and at times rather sadistic in her treatment of other kids like Mark (Owen Campbell). All the youngsters at the camp have been sent there on suspicion of being homosexual, regardless of whether they actually are or aren’t.

During one such group session, Mark reveals that he cannot go home because his father still considers him effeminate. The boy has a mental breakdown and goes into a frenzy, and Dr Marsh resorts to harsh physical control that immobilises the boy. Later in the evening Cameron discovers the bathroom awash in blood and the next day the kids are told that Mark has had to go to hospital to be treated for an injury. During one-on-one meetings later in the day, Rick admits to Cameron that Mark mutilated his genitals and nearly died before he was found. Cameron demands to know why Mark wasn’t being monitored and if Dr Marsh and Rick know what they are doing, at which point Rick begins to cry. During an investigation into Mark’s self-mutilation that follows, Cameron tells the investigator that the staff at God’s Promise are emotionally abusive in teaching youngsters to hate themselves for what they are. The investigator refuses to accept what Cameron, and presumably Jane and Adam also, say in their interviews and the three later resolve to leave God’s Promise.

Shot and directed in a minimalist style, the film relies on its cast to flesh out the characters and make them credible. In this, Moretz does excellent work, giving the impression of a girl who sees and digests more than she reveals in her dialogue with others. She learns how to survive in a world that will not accept her as she is, and finds allies who, like her, maintain an open and sceptical mind to what they are told to believe. Apart from Moretz, other actors do what they can to make their characters human with varying degrees of success. The characters played by Goodluck and Lane come across as token minority-group stereotypes and Ehle is not given much to work with in Dr Marsh. The inclusion of Mark as the focus of a sub-plot seems too much like an afterthought, and that afterthought seemingly too hard for the script-writers to deal with. 

The film plays rather like a realist documentary and viewers are left to wonder whether Cameron and her friends will succeed in escaping the clutches of God’s Promise and the cultural and social institutions the camp represents. Were it not for Moretz’s own efforts in making Cameron a real teenager, the film would present as a very sketchy and unfinished work in its premise of detailing the abuse inflicted by gay conversion centres and similar institutions on vulnerable young people, and how such institutions and their practices are part of a repressive religious, social and political culture in the United States. Viewers will come away with the impression that the film is little more than a propaganda piece for the LGBTIQA+ movement.