Based on Emily M Danforth’s 2012 novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is the perfect teen movie for our times. Sure, it’s set in 1993, but it feels particularly prescient. On the one hand, society has become far more ‘woke’ about sexuality, with same-sex marriage widely accepted, for example; on the other, extremism is on the rise, and hard-won rights are being challenged once again. This film is a timely reminder of what we stand to lose.
It’s much more than that, of course. It’s also a heart-warming, heart-breaking coming-of-age tale, with a troubled teenager as its protagonist. Chloë Grace Moretz is the titular Cameron Post, an orphan raised by her evangelical Aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler). Ruth is a kindly woman, and she and Cameron are close. But when Cameron is discovered having sex with her best – female – friend, Coley (Quinn Shephard), she’s packed off to God’s Promise, a gay-aversion camp-cum-boarding-school, deep in the heart of Nowhere, Montana, where, it is hoped, she will learn to recognise her homosexuality for the heinous sin the church believes it is.
The camp is as bonkers as it sounds: whoever thought that bringing all the gay kids together and isolating them with same-sex room-mates would help them to avoid temptation? It’s all tragically well-meant: the leaders, Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr) truly believe they are saving souls. The reverend himself is ex-gay, he says; he understands the teens’ troubles. Dr Lydia isn’t quite as compassionate, taking a cruel-to-be-kind approach, completely unaware of how tone-deaf she really is. “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” realises Cameron, in despair. “You’re making it up as you go along.”
Moretz is delightful in this role, all understated rebellion and silent agony. We never really know, until the end, if she will submit to the camp’s teachings, because she’s so uncommunicative and unsure. She doesn’t want to let people down; she doesn’t want to hate herself. But she can’t be someone other than who she really is. Being gay hurts her – isolates her from those she loves; it’s not easy for her to fathom what she ought to do. She gravitates instinctively though towards the cynical among her peers, Jane ‘Fonda’ (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), with whom she smokes dope (smuggled in via Jane’s prosthetic leg) and mocks some of the nonsense they are made to spout. She finds real friendship here, and strength, and it’s a good thing she does. Because the camp is actually rather dangerous: the psychological damage might be inadvertently inflicted, but it’s just as ruinous as if it were intentional.
But these are sassy teens, with much spirit to spare, and even the sly manipulation of Dr Lydia (brilliantly conveyed by Jennifer Ehle) can’t suppress them forever. They’re bold and lively and they’re going to take on the world.