“How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?”
This rhetorical question, asked by a character partway through The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is the heart of this film about teens undergoing Christian conversion therapy. Based on the young adult novel by Emily M. Danforth, the details of this movie adaptation manage to ring both completely true and utterly infuriating.
Opening with its eponymous protagonist caught in heavy petting with her friend Coley at their high school homecoming in 1993, the film quickly gets down to business. Cameron, on her pastor’s advice and her guardians’ mandate, is dispatched to God’s Promise, a chalet-like conversion therapy camp for teens.
Despite its serene wooded setting, God’s Promise is a gloomy place. The kids, decently differentiated in the movie’s 91 minute run time, show a gamut of emotions and behaviors. Cameron herself is sullen and skeptical. Her roommate Erin is superficially chirpy and upbeat, boasting progress away from “SSA” (same-sex attraction). Adam and Jane, to whom the title character gradually bonds most tightly, give lip service and minimal effort to the program, sneaking off for smokes at every unguarded opportunity.
Meanwhile, we have ample chances to see the program’s work close-up. God’s Promise is run by a pair of siblings: Lydia Marsh was a secular therapist who claims to have successfully converted her brother, Pastor Rick, away from gayness. Their individual and group sessions use the language of addiction and recovery, while refusing to acknowledge the reality of non-hetero sexual orientations. Instead, Lydia and Rick strive to plumb each teen’s personal reasons for SSA, such as unhealthy parental relationships, non-Christian spiritual practices, or envy of a same-sex friend’s particular talents.
Across the film, Cameron vacillates between resistance and acquiescence to the God’s Promise program. No matter her conscious efforts, her vividly portrayed dreams and fantasies expose a core self and desires unsurprisingly unchanged.
Much of the film’s tension stems from our wondering whether conformity or rebellion will win out for Cameron. In addition, we progressively realize that Lydia and Rick are winging it in their execution of their program, making the distress felt by these kids increasingly volatile. All of this is well-handled by director Desiree Akhavan; my only dissatisfaction with her narrative came with its weak ending.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a heavy film, and Akhavan has wisely chosen a narrow palette of dark and autumnal browns to convey the sorrow-laden events onscreen. Chloë Grace Moretz, playing the title character, is not given a chance to show much emotional range either. None of this is intended as negative criticism, though. To denigrate the film on the basis of these self-imposed stylistic limitations would be akin to dissing The Gulag Archipelago for not being silly enough.
And the comparison to Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of life in a Soviet gulag is an apt one, for the kids at God’s Promise are living in a miniature totalitarian state. Their mail is withheld, hairstyles mandated, activities restricted due to “gender acceptability.” Even their thoughts are pried into and weighed, to determine whether they are safe to return to the wider world.
As a former fundamentalist Christian during the era in which this film is set, I would assert that the The Miseducation of Cameron Post portrays the American evangelical subculture in a fair, if justly unflattering, manner. The fear-inducing, falsely dichotomizing Christianese spoken at Cameron’s church and at God’s Promise is the same language I heard at my Christian high school, at InterVarsity meetings, and at Teen Mania rallies. The insipid ripoffs of secular culture in the film feel authentic, too: “Blessercise” videos in place of Jane Fonda workouts, repetitive praise choruses at a concert with a Dolores O’Riordan wannabe.
As someone trained extensively in psychotherapy, I’m outraged by the reality contained in this film, since conversion therapy for teens is still legal in 36 of our 50 states. The facts that “gayness” cannot be cured, that its so-called treatment only pulverizes an already-vulnerable population, that “same sex attraction” cannot be addressed like an addiction, mean that conversion therapy for minors needs to be outlawed in these other 36 states.
Being an ex-evangelical myself, I understand the appeal of conversion therapy for true believers, for whom the Bible, not science, is the final authority on sexuality. In my own parallel process, as a freshly minted psychiatrist who was still a Christian, I briefly allied with a faith-based drug rehab program. Because they bore the Christian stamp, I didn’t question their credentials or training; just like the parents in this film, I assumed if they’re preaching Jesus, they must be legit and do good work.
It’s embarrassing for me to look back on that time, where I allowed allegiance to dogma to supplant empirical evidence and critical thinking. Even now, I need an occasional film like The Miseducation of Cameron Post to remind me why I hate organized religion.
The quote that opened this review – “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” – is true for conversion therapy, but isn’t it just as accurate for religion in general? Every faith poisonously claims that every person is fundamentally flawed and can only be fixed by adhering to their unique dogma and practices.
Christians are hectored about their inherently degraded state on a weekly basis, through old-timey hymns (“Just as I am, without one plea”), contemporary choruses (“Brokenness is what I need”), and the fake cure of a crucified God as the only gateway to wholeness. These weekly doses of lies may not be as grossly abusive as conversion therapy, but it’s deceitful and psychologically toxic all the same.
3.5 out of 5 stars