Like many movies about gay people but not really for them, The Miseducation of Cameron Post veers quickly into misery. The first of a pair of high-profile films this year about gay conversion therapy, which remains legal in 36 U.S. states, the movie opens in 1993 in Montana. Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), a dolled-up small-town teenager, finds herself ignoring her boyfriend in favor of secret trysts with a girl from her Bible study, whom, in a charming but absurd touch, she falls for during a late-night viewing of Desert Hearts. On prom night, the girls consummate their love in the back of a car in the parking lot (hey, who among us?) and, as required by the plot, are quickly discovered by Cameron’s boyfriend. In the very next scene, Cameron’s aunt is hauling her off to God’s Promise. It is what it sounds like.
If you’ve read the more horrific accounts of conversion therapy, you will not find them in this movie, which opts for the far more timid story of a wayward psychologist (Jennifer Ehle) and her ex-gay brother (John Gallagher Jr.) running what is essentially a creepy religious school focused on “traditional gender roles.” There is no doubt the camp practices dangerous psychological abuse, but “no one’s, you know, beating us,” as Cameron clarifies when an investigator turns up late in the movie. Instead, we get a vaguely topical but unfailingly safe narrative that befits the film’s berth at Sundance, where it won the top dramatic prize earlier this year: Cameron falls in with two fellow miscreants (Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck), questions herself fleetingly, and contends with the strange but mostly manageable behavior of both captors and captives at the camp. There are eerie late-night flashlight checks to make sure same-sex roommates aren’t up to old habits, insidious therapy sessions that pit the kids against each other, and enough manufactured quirk from the movie’s many supporting players to tick off all boxes in the “character development” chapter of a screenplay manual.
Based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is easy to admire for its sensitive and relatively unsentimental approach to tricky subject matter, but then: Shouldn’t this movie be devastating? That it isn’t at all seems like the first of many problems. Director and co-writer Desiree Akhavan can never quite shake the film’s issue-movie sheen as she guides us through one stagey and unconvincing therapy sequence after another, and even when her vision comes to life—as in a disturbing sequence that cross-cuts between an inevitable suicide attempt and the therapy session that catalyzed it—she can’t keep it from falling back into a handsomely retrofitted after-school movie. It’s puzzling at best, and vulgar at worst, to turn such a raw, urgent, and ongoing abuse into a movie that works so hard to coddle its audience with tired coming-of-age tropes and moments of easy emotional release. Why bother? If the movie reveals the horrors of conversion therapy to an uninitiated audience, it’s hard to see that as a bad thing, but to treat it so delicately feels like a grave disservice.
Even if we consider The Miseducation of Cameron Post absent from our moment, and I’m not sure we should, the movie still squanders its last whiffs of potential. Every supporting character—every single one—has moments that suggest they would make a far more compelling star than Cameron Post. It’s hard to know if we should fault Moretz or the thin writing for Cameron’s vagueness: Moretz never locates her interiority, but perhaps she never had any. Moretz has done fine work as, for example, a proto–Lindsay Lohan in Clouds of Sils Maria, but her sullen affect here kills what was clearly meant to be a breakout role. We’re left to long for more time with Ehle and Gallagher Jr.—the latter with a very actorly, meaning-filled mustache—who gnaw through a few scenes but don’t find much to bite off. Or even more time with Lane (American Honey) and Goodluck (The Revenant), who are mostly left to mope. The low-key best performance in the movie comes from Owen Campbell, who sneaks up on us as a peripheral God’s Promise resident, but his quiet and then fierce turn is stifled by the movie’s perfunctory mechanics. No one can quite rise above them.
It will not surprise you to learn the movie ends on a hopeful note, unearned but not unpleasant. Akhavan stages The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s most memorable image in the bed of a truck emblazoned with a Clinton-Gore sticker, a reminder this takes place 25 years ago, where it’s hard to imagine the circumstances at a conversion camp like this wouldn’t have been more dire. That final shot, held for pleasingly longer than we expect, feels like the emotional catharsis for a movie we never got to see—and that an unimaginable practice like this ultimately demands.