Western politics have shifted so far to the right, that a period film set in a gay conversion camp unfortunately feels extremely timely – especially when a noted supporter of the morally questionable practice has risen to become the Vice President of the United States. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is set in the early nineties in Montana, but the film doesn’t wear the cultural differences separating then and now too heavily; a cassette tape here, a “Clinton/Gore” bumper sticker there, but no detail significant enough to leave the audience thinking that what we’re seeing is a relic of the past, and not something that’s unfortunately still taking place well into the 21st century.
Adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows the titular character (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) as she’s been sent to a summer camp by her aunt, after being caught in a sexual tryst with a female friend on her prom night. The camp is on the theoretically lighter end of those practicing gay conversion, prioritising therapy sessions and “iceberg” tests in order to get to grips with what the camp leaders believe has led them to commit sins in the eyes of God. But this proves to only be a cause of frustration; some of the campers appear to have entered in to a similar state of delusion about being “fixed”, while those who are more carefree about their own identities (such as Sasha Lane’s character Jane Fonda) are lying their way through the summer, in the hopes of getting back home safely and concealing every necessary detail about themselves.
For a film set in such a depressing environment, The Miseducation of Cameron Post manages to maintain a lighthearted tone for the majority of its slim 90 minute runtime. The screenplay, co-written by director Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, gives only the slimmest necessary context as to how Cameron has ended up in this situation, focusing instead on the offbeat characters who populate this world – characters with a lack of self awareness that practically registers as tragicomic. Cameron’s own personal life isn’t as harrowing as others within the camp, it’s far from happy but isn’t devoid of hope, meaning that the film’s frequent comic levity doesn’t feel tonally off-putting when this world is viewed through her eyes.
The film’s flaw comes from not properly reckoning with the emotional torture (enforced with a friendly smile) at the camp until the film’s later moments. This is a development that I imagine was articulated better in the source material, where hearing the story directly from Cameron’s perspective would clarify how blind she was to the demons of other campers. But in the film, we are introduced to several characters and spend time with many of them away from Cameron’s point of view – but they largely feel underdeveloped when the context of this late development is factored in. It makes the sharp turn towards tragedy feel unearned, not quite packing the emotional punch it would have deserved. This is undeniably Cameron Post’s story, but as silent horrors befall other characters, I couldn’t help wish the film was longer than its brisk 90 minute runtime in order to properly explore the causes and effects more thoroughly.
But, take the film’s ending out of the equation, and this remains a charming teen movie. Anchored by a great performance from Chloë Grace Moretz, The Miseducation of Cameron Post manages to take some of the most harrowing subject matter imaginable and find the warm comedy inside it, without ever needing to soften its darkest edges.