Coming of age stories are a particularly poignant part of cinema culture. Diving into the rich history of youth, everyone has been through a particular journey that is profound and life-affirming. LGBT cinema gravitates to these moments in our lives because it is when we first start recognising this part of ourselves, wishing to explore our attractions. But for many people, this revelation is followed by prejudice and anguish, which is what Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post focuses on.
Based on a book by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post revolves around the titular teenage girl who is caught on her prom having sex with her best friend Coley. Though her parents died years before, her uber-religious aunt sends her off to God’s Promise – a conversion camp which treats homosexuality as a sinful urge that can be prayed away. There, Cameron must learn to survive the treatment but also discover who she is and who she wishes to be.
Those fans of Desiree Akhavan’s work in Appropriate Behaviour may be expecting a similar raucous affair to her highly acclaimed directorial debut. Instead, however, Akhavan shifts narrative tones to produce a marvellously muted and deeply moving piece on a young character’s life as she is forcibly made into someone she isn’t meant to be. The script and the direction has this hum of realism that creates an alluring atmosphere. Moving from heart-breaking anguish to moments of hilarity, Akhavan navigates this complex story and carves out an almost enchanting feature.
Tinges of familiarity will linger with anyone who has experienced being a gay teenager. That ache of shame that ebbs with sexual awareness, that isolation and loneliness as family members turn from you in dumbfounding disgrace, and those people we foolishly fall in love with only for them to abandon us. The exploration of lust-filled craving is so intensely truthful that in parts I felt like I was watching my own adolescence on the big screen. It is so intricately intimate that there are goosebumps permenantly etched into my skin.
The young actors are superb in portraying this. Chloe Grace Mortez has grown into her own and she is impeccable as the titular role. A quiet character, Mortez keeps most of her emotion bubbling under the surface and as the intensity of her surroundings becomes too much of a burden to bare, Mortez allows the feelings to escape with hot bursts of rage, anger, love, and humour. It’s an accomplished performance – a perfect balance of trepidation and sorrow as a time of discovery is dashed by religion zeitgeist.
Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck, as fellow students and soon close friends of Cameron’s, are brilliant supporting actors who gift us with these diverse backgrounds and stories that add variety to the story. Older performers John Gallagher Jr as Reverend Rick Marsh (a fellow “convert” and now camp leader”) and Dr Lydia Marsh (his bitter sister) are brilliant additions as pseudo-villains but both with their own quaking agenda and false personas ready to break. Ehle is particular vindictive, believing that simple mannerisms or life-style choices can force someone to “have these urges” and vehemently believing that homosexuality is a myth. Even a silent shot of her burns with venomous realism.
Without giving away the story, however, the most brutal and impassioned moment happens when Owen Campbell, as Mark, breaks down. It’s the gravest outburst that echoes the sentiments of each child there and the frustration of trying to change yourself to fit a mould carved out of ignorance and misunderstanding. Campbell takes your breath away in this moment and it shakes you to your core.
The cabin and wooded setting that confines the teenagers away from society becomes this hollow silent ground. Ashley Connor’s cinematography captures hues of brown and wisps of sunlight that exemplify the hushed aurora around. Julian Wass’ score grounds the era in the nineties alongside popular songs, the set design, and costuming. Yet this doesn’t take away from an untimely story that is raw and exposed in a beautifully honest manner.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a highly effective cinematic poem that is an ode to anyone discovering their sexuality. It works as a condemnation of conversation camps but also a celebration of youth and their vigour. Akhavan’s immense and triumphant work here is unforgettable.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post screened at Sundance London Film Festival
It is out in cinemas on the 31st August!