There is just no way for me to respond to this film objectively. I usually feel like I have a sense of how other people will respond, but this one is just too personal. How presumably open-minded straight people will react to The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one thing. In my case it's more specific: Cameron Post and I have something in common, in that I was sent to a "Christian counselor" as a teenager to "fix" my sexuality. (The word "fix" was never used, of course, lest the guy come across as too judgmental. This all comes from love, right?)
I was never sent to an actual camp, at least -- I just had weekly sessions with a counselor when I was fifteen -- but it was the same basic concept. And here's a compelling idea that Cameron Post brings up: the people who run this place, telling all these actually perfectly normal kids that they are being consumed by sinful temptations -- they're all just doing the best they can with what they think is right. Director and co-writer Desiree Akhavan (based on a novel of the same name by Emily M. Danforth) presents them as well-rounded people willing to admit at times when they don't know what the right answer is. For me it begs the question: where was that guy who had been my "counselor" coming from, anyway? What were his struggles, his paths that led him to such a position in his life? It's 25 years later and I never thought to consider that.
And just to clarify, this is not a defense of people in those positions, truly fucking up kids on an emotional level. Teenagers are far more impressionable than they believe themselves to be, and Chloë Graze Moretz, who plays the title character, conveys this beautifully. She's dropped off at "God's Promise" in a state of confusion, and she spends some time actually attempting to tow the line, work the "process" away from her supposed temptation.
Watching all this was very difficult at times, wavering at regular intervals between feeling deep sadness for these kids and palpable fury at the adults purporting to care for them. And it should be stressed that, for the most part -- at least, with one notable exception -- this is not in response to particular melodrama or histrionics. Cameron Post and the friends she makes (particularly Sasha Lane's Jane and Forrest Goodluck's Adam) are all pretty mellow, all things considered. When an inevitable tragedy occurs, it is met with shocked confusion rather than hysterics, which is both unusual in film and a tad more realistic.
There is one scene, in which a fellow "disciple" as they gratingly get called, has a bit of a meltdown in a group therapy meeting. The young actor Owen Campbell does great with the material he's given, but the scene itself, in which he collapses in tears after reading a passage of scripture he says was favored by his deeply homophobic father, is a bit much.
That said, the performances all around are great. There's something vaguely insidious in air of serenity put on my Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle), who runs the camp with her "changed" brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr). Rick, for his part, only barely looks like he's convinced himself he's comfortable with himself.
For some of us, a line like Cameron saying "I'm tired of feeling disgusted with myself" really hits home -- a vivid memory of teen life. Only an adult can see the value of what Jane says back to that, though: "Maybe teenagers are just supposed to be disgusted with themselves."
It must be said that there is real delicacy in the presentation of this story. It's all the better for being directed by a woman, as the several scenes depicting sex are devoid of a male gaze. It's an impressive feat when the sex in a movie is never graphic but still manages to be frank. And when Cameron's boyfriend is shown catching her in the act of going at it with a female friend, it made me so uncomfortable I wanted to crawl inside my seat.
Ultimately, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming of age story. It's one with unusual specificity, though, and one in which that coming of age process is gradual and organic. The script occasionally presses at the seams of credibility, but for the most part, as someone who went through something similar, I can tell you the emotional stakes ring true. The key difference is that these are kids who realized at a much earlier age than some of us that adults don't necessarily have any idea what they're doing. One can only hope that results in this movie being illuminating to people.