After the one-two punch of the deeply distressing The Killing of a Sacred Deer and You Were Never Really Here last year, it would be easy to assume simply from The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s mouthful of a title that Desiree Akhavan’s second feature would be a sombre, serious affair. And though it does deal with some very hefty traumas and social ills, it’s in its kind, funny, warm-hearted humanity that Miseducation finds its true power. Though it may not exactly be revolutionary or even particularly unpredictable, it hits every emotional beat you could possibly want it to with such sincerity and panache that it’s impossible to resist.
Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a high school senior who, after being caught with her secret girlfriend on prom night, is sent by her conservative aunt to a sexuality conversion camp. Akhavan sets out her stall on oppressive religion early, an elderly pastor literally telling Cameron and her classmates that ‘fun is the enemy’ in the first three minutes of the film. The camp’s counsellors constantly reiterate that the kids under their ‘care’ are their to have fun and ‘be healed’, but it’s far more like a prison than a genuine educative institution; mail from family is censored and hidden and lights are shone into rooms in the middle of the night to ensure a lack of sex.
Despite being given a roommate who believes in the cause – Erin (Emily Skeggs) – Cameron soon falls in with the designated bad kids, ‘Jane Fonda’ (American Honey’s Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (The Revenant’s Forrest Goodluck). They make for a supremely watchable and likeable trio, all three putting in funny and layered performances. This is probably the best that Moretz has ever been, repaying the script for the most complete role of her career so far.
She’s vulnerable and scared, open to some of the brainwashing from self-proclaimed cured homosexual Rick (John Gallagher Jr) and the Nurse Ratched-esque Dr Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). With the exception perhaps of Dr Marsh, Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele’s script, adapted from the novel by Emily Danforth, never judges too harshly. Some of the kids are there willingly, seeing their dehumanisingly-dubbed ‘SSAs’ (same-sex attractions) as real obstacles to their educational or religious goals. Though there are some fun jokes at their expense, the laughs are only ever triggered by their dorky over-sincerity, not by the choices that led them to this place in their lives.
A kitchen singalong to ‘What’s Up’ by Four Non Blondes is effusively funny and utterly beautiful, as Cameron and her friends let the entirety of the camp join in, even the most pious members, whose induced self-hatred has beaten them into the mould of Dr Marsh. I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face for a long while after it ended, even as the inherent darkness of Cameron’s situation re-asserted itself. There is self-harm at the camp, and even attempted suicides, and these moments are wrenchingly sad, but Akhavan’s control of tone never wavers. Life is messy, especially as a gay teen in the early ‘90s, and the flurry of feelings in any given scene captures that reality perfectly.
The 1993 setting is important but never overpowering. Given the camp’s oppressive nature, the lack of mobile phones doesn’t date it at all, and it’s in the excursions to the outside world that we see signs of exactly when we are. Tattered posters urging people to vote for Clinton and Gore pop up occasionally, and the small soundtrack is carefully curated to bring an early ‘90s feel, but it’s not kitschy. The date is crucial, however, to Adam’s story.
A Native American ‘Two Spirit’, he has been sent to the camp to improve the image of his newly converted Christian father as he runs for office. That this political move would now be considered overtly cruel, but is still very possible, lets Miseducation make a subtle point about both how far America has come in terms of LGBT+ rights and just how far it still has to go. That Adam and ‘Jane’ are the only two kids of colour at the camp goes largely uncommented on in the film, but their additional alienation adds layers of sadness and fury to their stories.
Fury is another emotion that Akhavan courts, between the laughs and the tears. You half wish that every one to one therapy session that Cameron has with Dr Marsh would end with Cameron giving a verbose, sweary speech that puts the counsellor in her place, but you have to settle for lobbing silent ‘fuck you’s at the screen. Marsh is the villain of the piece – though Rick’s more unintentional cruelty is not given a pass – but her comeuppance doesn’t come through some showdown. Catharsis is found elsewhere, in the kids at the camp consoling and confiding in each other, helping each other keep control of their own minds and desires.
There’s no doubt that Miseducation is an important film – the sex and romance are handled honestly and frankly, without any hint of gratuitousness – but that doesn’t mean that it has to be ponderous or worthy. This is one of the most emotionally involving films of the year; it will have you recoiling at disgusting homophobia and emotional abuse one moment and laughing out loud at a Christian workout routine called ‘Blessercise’ the next. It’s a wonderful and necessary story, told with blinding wit and profound compassion.