This film was seen at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival. The film is now in wide release in Seattle.
“Maybe you’re supposed to feel disgusted at yourself when you’re a teenager.”
This is not your average coming of age or moody YA drama. Desiree Akhavan, a bisexual Iranian-American woman, accomplishes the daunting task of provoking a dialogue about identity politics within the structures of well-built film. The Miseducation of Cameron Post surprises with the blackest of humor and seamlessly transitions into heartache. The film masters the waver between hope and devastation.
Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is sent to God’s Promise, a Christian conversion camp founded on repetitive and mind-numbing prayer and encouraging self-hate. From its exterior, it could be mistaken for any summer camp setting, but by the first encounter with Psychologist Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her “ex gay” brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), the institutional psychological abuse is laid bare. The sheer absurdity of such an idea as praying away ones’ sexuality drives home how dangerous a sect of religion can become when it forgets its message of acceptance. It is a cult, and a place for ashamed evangelical parents to make their children invisible to the world. And it is still a reality for queer children in this country, with the people who run them being responsible for the psychological suffering of children. It pushes us to hold figures of authority accountable, both internally and externally.
However, it is the very bleakness of these circumstances that allow the resilience and sincerity of the young cast to shine through. Comradery becomes synonymous with survival. The friendships that Cameron forms with Jane (portrayed by rising star Sasha Lane) and Adam (a Lakota two-spirit boy played by Forrest Goodluck) are galvanized by similar stories of rejection by society, and through this, they come to serve as each other’s’ only touchstone for sanity and solace. The film takes its time working in fragments of each of their memories to fill out their identities and pasts, avoiding clunky exposition and filling it in as the narrative progresses.
The kids’ characters are all fully realized, and even young actors in supporting roles begin to outshine the less compelling adults. Ultimately all the kids are deeply sympathetic individuals. They are truly victims of the institution, and while they sometimes experience conflict, they are not ever made out to be rivals or enemies among themselves. They do their best surviving together as they become rebellious and self-determined in the face of institutional powers. It showcases their abilities to adapt to the adults’ games, while staying fully aware of the insidious methodology. It becomes a collective coming of age story, and the end of the film is less of a conclusion than it is a jumping off point into an unknown and indifferent world; through the very last shot, all you can be sure of is their resilience and togetherness.
In a Q&A at the film’s SIFF premiere, Goodluck explained succinctly what made him and the other teens so convincing in their roles and described how Akhavan gave the actors the space to breathe and exist as the kids after a period of research for the sake of properly representing specific identities. It’s responsible, meaningful filmmaking in a situation where any less nuance could have spiraled into exploitation. This film is ultimately about visibility; this kind of representation in media is unprecedented and desperately needed. Akhavan takes great care with a multiplicity of intersectional identities without calling attention to itself or asking for a pat on the back. The film portrays these teens knowing people in the audience will hang on to them in a media landscape dominated by white, cis, and heterosexual narratives. It resonates with those coming to terms with their own being and searching for validation in their identities and experiences. The film also inhabits a space that challenges the perspectives of those who have never lived a day in their life fearing any sort of prejudice due to their sexuality. It is eye-opening to see that kids are still shipped off by their families to these places, and are being taught to destroy themselves in the name of religion.
While the tired trope of the unhappy queer woman pervades the media, Akhavan ensures that it is never gratuitous. Her camera treats the characters with respect, an instruction for the audience to do the same. Lesbian intimacy on screen is for once not a product of the male gaze. This is proof why it is so essential to have film made by actual queer women of color who can lend their perspective. Cameron and the others aren’t simple martyrs; they are survivors that refuse to be dehumanized or forgotten. Overall, the film goes beyond a fresh narrative to absolutely raw at moments, well balanced with unexpected and biting humor. Don’t pass on this one just because the subject material is so dark, because the depth and resonance of the young characters and moments they can be genuinely themselves more than make up for it.