The communal experience of seeing a movie in theaters is often underappreciated. It’s a good way to be more engaged with the film than alternating between Netflix on your computer and Twitter on your phone every 10 minutes. There’s a certain charm to watching the newest “Star Wars” or Marvel vehicle with a slap-happy, hype-fed audience that makes an opening weekend blockbuster unforgettable. All movies don’t have action-packed conclusions and fulfilling endings though; some leave you still processing what just transpired for the last hour or two. The prevailing remark from most walking out of “Sorry to Bother You” was “what the fuck just happened,” while my fellow “Hereditary” goers mixed silence with shocked facial expressions.
And then there’s movies like “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” movies that provoke people in the theater to exclaim “that’s it?” when the credits roll. This movie may wind up being a divisive film simply for the fact that one’s enjoyment of it is directly tied to how much it resonates with them — non-teen, non-queer audiences might just not get it. While it only taps into specific sensibilities, the movie still has an enriching, powerful message that everyone should appreciate.
The story follows the titular high schooler (Chloë Grace Moretz, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”) in early ’90s Montana. An orphan who lives with her religious aunt, Cameron is sent to God’s Promise, a gay conversion therapy camp, after she’s caught making out with her friend Coley in the backseat of her boyfriend’s car during prom. What follows is not much, actually, as Cameron is forced to integrate into God’s Promise and adjust to this new life as scenes of high-intensity drama pepper the narrative.
This superficial mundanity is hard to peel away. But when the film manages to do so, it reveals a heart that is primarily concerned with Cameron coming to embrace her own identity and personhood. This is brought about, not by any life-changing event or transformation, but by the world around her. Cameron’s arc may seem static, but she tacitly moves and adapts to her changing environment.
Nothing wraps up nicely in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” The trauma of the residents of God’s Promise is brought to the forefront only to be left there. Fellow campers Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane, “American Honey”) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck, “The Revenant”) make quick friends with Cameron and have similar inertia towards their own sexual orientations. They seem surprising targets to end up at God’s Promise — Jane was raised in a hippie commune and Adam believes in his tribe’s non-gender-conforming “two-spirit” philosophy — but they’re there regardless.
The camp itself is run by the kindhearted Reverend Rick, an “ex-gay” played by John Gallagher, Jr. (“The Belko Experiment”) in a satisfying subtle performance, and his sister, the oppressive Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle, “Fifty Shades Freed”). Rick is slowly revealed to be a tragic character himself, as he was a guinea pig for his sister to force upon the same brand of “therapy” that they now make a living off of. Meanwhile, Lydia is the closest thing “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” has to an antagonist (Adam labels her as a “Disney villain that doesn’t let you masturbate”), but she is not exactly a Nurse Ratched type that threatens Cameron with electroshock therapy.
In fact, “Cameron Post” has no fiery conclusion, no explosive confrontation that marks the peak of the action. It drapes itself with coming-of-age tropes only to pull them away to unveil a wholly unique story when the 90-minute runtime comes to an end.
No one depicted in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is inherently evil; the only evil is the idea of such a conversion camp even existing (while it may seem far-fetched, facilities like the one depicted still exist to this day). Cameron, Jane, Adam and all the other campers are not physically mistreated at God’s Promise, only pushed to their emotional limits. And while some bend to the Christian rhetoric of the camp, others break.
After a traumatic event that leaves the campers scarred and the administrators questioning how it could have happened, a state investigator is sent in to monitor the conditions of the camp. In a conversation where he questions Cameron if there is any ongoing abuse, Cameron maintains that she is not being physically harmed, but raises the question: “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?”
Therein lies the core of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” While Cameron’s story takes precedence, the emotional vignettes of the other teens she is newly surrounded by prove that although invisible, self-love and acceptance will always be a more powerful agent of positive change than any forced method manifested from hate.