What a shame that this well-meaning look at the absurdity of gay conversion camps — it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year — lacks the teeth to make its points stick. Based on a 2012 YA novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is set in 1993, before giant strides in gay civil liberties such as the legal right of same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states had kicked in. The film version, directed by Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior), hints at the return to repression that will come with the Trump era, in which a recent Supreme Court decision sided with a Colorado baker who refused, for religious reasons, to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Which only makes the fact that this drama treads carefully, drifting into an Afterschool Special timidity when you must want it to raise a fist, that much more frustrating.
Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) stars as the orphaned title character, a high-school junior who is caught steaming up car windows with the prom queen (Quinn Shephard). She’s quickly sent off by her religious guardian to God’s Promise, a camp where she can be de-gayed before it’s too late. Credit Akhavan and co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele for dodging caricature when dealing with the organization’s clueless counselors, the formerly gay Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and his therapist sister Lydia (a clenched Jennifer Ehle). Both siblings project a moral certainty that barely disguises their inner confusion. Plus, their plan backfires when Cameron, once the outsider, bonds with fellow sinners: Jane (American Honey‘s Sasha Lane), who hides weed in her prosthetic leg; and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), a bi-curious Native American.
The movie works hard to show empathy for both sides of the equation, but dramatic tension drains away as the film resorts to tired YA tropes from unrequited love to unexpected tragedy in order to gin up excitement. Moretz, reduced to mostly reaction shots, makes Cameron feel more like a visitor to her own story. The distancing effect saps this otherwise heartfelt movie of intimate spark. Miseducation works best when it shows the shame and self-loathing cruelly infused into characters by a brainwashing society that won’t allow them to live their truth. As Cameron says, “How is teaching us to hate ourselves not emotional abuse?” It’s a statement that feels as timely and scary as ever.