Last year, there was one film that seemed to take up almost all of the space in my head. For all the wonderful movies that came in 2017, none occupied my thoughts or meant more to me than one in particular – this was Luca Guadagnino’s masterful Call Me By Your Name, a film that I have written hundreds of adoring words on over the past ten months, and which I hardly felt I could do justice to in my work. I am not here, however, to revisit Call Me By Your Name but, rather, to discuss the film that appears to have had the same effect on me this year. Though we may only be in September, I doubt that I will find another feature in the coming months that will impact me as much as Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Just as Guadagnino’s film gripped every part of me last year, so has Akhavan’s – her depiction of a young, gay woman’s battle with both herself and the cruelty of her environment is as heart-wrenching as it is witty, and feels to me as beautiful and as vital to queer cinema as Call Me By Your Name.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not a story of epic, all-consuming romance, of the kind of desire that soaks you to your bones – although both of these things are glimpsed at during its ninety-minute runtime – but instead, is one of identity and solidarity. The eponymous Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a teenager in nineties Montana, whose sexual encounter with her best friend, and the prom queen, results in her being sent to God’s Promise; an evangelical camp that seeks to rectify the “sin” of what it refers to as SSA (same-sex attraction) in young people. Though the subject matter is dark and often horrifying, Akhavan’s approach is funny, measured, and deeply affirming. When the leaders at God’s Promise attempt to condition teenagers, most barely more than kids, into despising every bit of themselves, Cameron and her fellow ‘disciples’ respond with defiance that comes in the form of friendship.
Where Jennifer Ehle’s Dr. Lydia Marsh, a therapist who believes that she has “cured” her brother – a reverend at the camp – of his homosexual tendencies, strives to stamp out all forms of love and individuality, Cameron eventually chooses to give back both tenfold. One of the scenes that stood out for me the most serves as a perfect showcase of this response of warmth in the face of adversity. While washing the dishes and peeling potatoes at God’s Promise, Cameron and her friends, Sasha Lane’s Jane and Forrest Goodluck’s Adam, notice that the first few lines of What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes have started to crackle out from an old radio. Cameron begins to sing along, tentatively at first, accompanied by some gentle backing vocals from Adam and Jane, before suddenly launching into a joyous, spontaneous performance atop the kitchen counter. Along with Linda Perry on the transistor radio, Cameron exclaims that she “cries sometimes” while she’s laying in bed “just to get out what’s in her head”, and what comes from this is a moment of pure, if brief, catharsis. Here, even when surrounded by unimaginable hardship in the emotional abuse that is doled out by Marsh, teenage rebellion and camaraderie reign. Cameron is able, for the first time in a long time, to express her authentic self – if only for a minute.
Akhavan’s decision to use friendship and the power of adolescent bonds to combat the constant instructions of self-loathing at God’s Promise does not mean, however, that her film shies away from darkness, or from topics such as the intensity of teenage sexuality. Some of the films most poignant moments, in fact, come from the occasional looks we get at Cameron’s relationship with Coley, the aforementioned friend she is caught in the embrace of. Their encounters begin with the slightest of gestures, one girl’s foot brushes tenderly against the others as they watch Desert Hearts – a film fundamental to my own realisation of my attraction to other girls in my early youth – together on VHS. As with almost all teenage romances, the tension simmers between the two until Cameron’s bedroom is dripping with unspoken desire, until they finally succumb to the sort of natural cravings that are described at God’s Promise as a “sickness”. This is where The Miseducation of Cameron Post most effectively conveys its brilliance, as the touches shared between Coley and Cameron are devoid of any sense of exploitation, or of the male gaze that has so often tarnished scenes of sex between women. Every kiss, every glide of the fingertips over thighs, feels authentic; these are scenes made by women, for women – not for the indulgence of straight men in search of sexual gratification.
The woman that I was with at my viewing of the film, on a resultantly rather poignant date, in fact, told me afterwards that she felt as if she had been in Cameron’s bedroom with her and Coley the whole time, to give an indication of just how real the intimacy of these moments felt. I could only agree with her, and we spent most of our journey home reflecting on how rare it felt to find this honest a depiction of lesbian sex in film; this is a credit to both Akhavan and her director of photography, Ashley Connor, whose use of close, contained shots and the soft hues of a teenage girl’s room are essential in establishing the intimacy found in such scenes. With such tight shots, we are invited to share in every thought, every flicker of want that crosses the girls’ faces, right along with them. I recalled these moments between Cameron and Coley at a later point in the film, when another of God’s Promise’s so-called “pupils”, Mark (Owen Campbell), reads a passage from the Bible that describes weakness as strength in reference to his own perceived “weakness” in his gayness. I thought of the power of those scenes, of the extremity of the passion shared between these two girls, and of the strength that Cameron’s sexuality ultimately brings her. What God’s Promise call weakness, what they see as a disease, is really more powerful than any of them could possibly imagine – the bravery required to desire, to love, that which the world around you wants to deny you is evidence of a kind of strength for which words cannot truly suffice.
The note that Akhavan’s film ends on is one of hope, rather than of total resolve, yet it does not suffer from this. Rather, to be left with the idea that there is hope for Cameron, and for every individual suffering under conversion therapy, felt far more fitting to me than any closure could have – not all kids get out, but we can hope that they will. When it comes to emotional abuse, of which there is plenty in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, there is not always closure, nor is there always escape. For us to be left with only hope, just as Cameron is, feels like the right way to bring an end to a story that documents an experience that one can never truly forget. This is a beautiful piece, one which has already found a permanent spot in my heart to secure itself in, and which feels as crucial to the world now as ever. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming-of-age masterpiece that should be remembered not only as one of the finest stories that LGBTQ+ cinema has to offer but as one of the most honest and most unabashed portraits of the teenage experience there is.