The Rules of Affliction
by Simran Hans
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Desiree Akhavan, U.S., FilmRise
The last scene in Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature The Miseducation of Cameron Post sees three teenagers wedged in the back of a pick-up truck, laughing. Their individual expressions settle into something less readable as they look back at the camera, a Bill Clinton bumper sticker visible at the edge of the frame before the image cuts to black. It reminded me of two other movie endings: newlyweds Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katherine Ross), ambivalent in the back of a yellow school bus in The Graduate (1967), and teenage survivor Sally (Marilyn Burns) in the final moments of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), as tenderized and bloodied as a steak, half-cackling, half-crying as the ride she’s hitched drives off into the sunset. Each of the three sequences evades catharsis; Sally might have escaped, but the Sawyer family remains otherwise undisturbed, alive and waiting to prepare their next meal. Ben and Elaine must live with the fact that their leap of faith may have been a bit hasty. And as for Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her friends? Though the gay conversion camp they’ve been living in is fading into the middle distance, there’s no guarantee that their new destination will be any more accepting of their homosexuality.
Adapting Emily Danforth’s 2012 young adult novel of the same name, Akhavan and her regular writing partner Celia Frugiuele take the last quarter of their source material to tell the story of Cameron, a teenage lesbian who is sent to “God’s Promise” in rural Montana to “pray away the gay” after she’s caught kissing her best friend, Coley (Quinn Shepherd). Led by brother and sister duo Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and psychiatrist Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), the camp attempts to cure its “disciples” of “SSA,” the pesky, pernicious affliction of Same Sex Attraction.
Though Cameron Post may be about queer characters—and indeed, directed by a queer woman—the film’s concerns cover the broader terrain of youth, identity, and self-loathing. “What feels like fun is actually the enemy, and that enemy is closing the noose around your neck,” warns the opening scene’s voiceover as Cameron and Coley sit in a circle at Sunday School, a line that feels ripped from Sixteen Candles. Cameron Post is set some ten years later, in 1993, but with its misfit cast of teenage delinquents and insensitive authority figures, John Hughes’s presence looms large. The film’s prologue takes place on the night of the girls’ homecoming dance: Cameron clicks the lights of a plastic vanity on and off, and on again, as her aunt does her make-up (she later wipes off a layer of lipstick with the back of her hand); Polaroids are taken of Cameron and Coley with their male dates’ arms wrapped awkwardly around their waists; the girls sneak off to smoke a bowl in the back of Cameron’s boyfriend’s car. In a wink of dramatic irony, Akhavan sets this montage to Irma Thomas’s 1964 doo-wop hit “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).”
Both Akhavan’s The Slope (2010-2012), the web series she co-created with her then-partner, and her debut feature, Appropriate Behavior (2014), starred the writer, director and actress and confronted her identity as a bisexual, millennial, Iranian-American. In mining her personal experiences for cringe comedy and frank, sharply observed reflections on sex and relationships, Akhavan earned comparisons to Lena Dunham (and indeed in 2015, she guested on three episodes of Dunham’s HBO series Girls). Yet though Akhavan began her career by writing what she knew, her interests as a filmmaker extend beyond the limits of identity politics. Appropriate Behavior, in particular, works just as efficiently as a satire of gentrifying Brooklyn (one hilarious set piece sees Akhavan’s character Shirin teaching a filmmaking course in Park Slope, to a class of five-year-olds). Her decision to follow Appropriate Behavior with an adaptation is a smart one if she hopes to disrupt expectations about the sort of film someone like her might make, and indeed Cameron Post strips away anything that might be considered a kind of crutch; New York, a contemporary setting, and the screen presence of Akhavan herself.
Sexuality and sex are subjects Akhavan handles with endearing candor. God’s Promise teems with barely repressed sexual energy, its residents horny and haunted by sex dreams about teachers, exes, and “should-be” partners of the opposite sex. “You can’t get a pass from God to jerk off,” quips one of the disciples, but Cameron can’t quite help herself. Working with cinematographer Ashley Connor, the film’s sex scenes are less about indulging in voyeuristic pleasures than they are about putting the viewer in the characters’ emotional headspace. From the steamy make-out session that was the catalyst for Cameron’s coming out, to her and Coley’s first kiss while watching Desert Hearts (1984) on VHS, to an unexpected bedroom fumble that occurs in the film’s third act, the way the scenes are blocked means that the camera never lingers on the visual spectacle of the bodies in action. Which is not to say that said scenes could be dismissed as tame, but rather that she understands there are more visceral ways to communicate desire, pleasure, and intensity (consider, perhaps, Moretz’s ragged breath in one scene that takes place in the dark).
Akhavan is fascinated by the moment of seduction, like the precise tipping point when a playful kick turns into a nudging invitation. She is also interested in the moment when the spell breaks. When Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) makes an impulsive sexual advance, the film gives equal weight to the humiliating instance immediately after, in which she realizes the experience meant something different to her partner than it did to her. Akhavan opts for even-handedness instead of relying on melodrama to raise the film’s dramatic stakes. It’s an act of tenderness toward her characters, none of which she allows to function as a traditional villain. Even Reverend Rick is gifted an opportunity to prove his capacity for empathy.
Still, Akhavan locates comedy in the absurd pop psychology endorsed by the camp’s Christian counselors. “Cameron’s already a masculine name—to abbreviate it to something less feminine only exacerbates your gender confusion,” insists Dr. May (“I have gender confusion because of sports, too!” Erin reassures her). At God’s Promise, hikes are allowed because “they’re a gender neutral sport.” The Breeders are banned, but Celine Dion is sanctioned. A Jane Fonda–style exercise video called “Blessercize,” which Erin becomes obsessed with works as a witty period detail. And speaking of Jane Fonda—Sasha Lane, who starred in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), pops up as her namesake, a stoner hippie with a prosthetic leg.
“Your silence feels aggressive and judgmental, and it makes the space not safe,” complains fellow camper Helen (Melanie Ehrlich), criticizing Cameron’s uncommunicative nature. It’s true that there’s not a lot of dialogue for Moretz to play with, though it’s not an obstacle. From the set of her mouth to the finely tuned squint of her eyes and the hunch of her square shoulders, Moretz’s performance is alive with small gestures, suggesting a self-scrutinizing observer beneath Cameron’s otherwise strong, silent exterior. Cameron has just one moment of unguarded goofiness in the film, climbing onto the kitchen countertop and belting the 1994 pop song “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes into the handle of a potato masher—a glimpse of who Cameron might be in a different context.
“I don’t think of myself as a homosexual. I don’t think of myself as anything,” she says flatly. (“You should think of yourself as a Christian,” replies Dr. May, not missing a beat). However, though Cameron may not have articulated her sexuality privately, the counselors goad her and her colleagues into reframing it as a disease, something more shameful—and more persistent—than mere injury. The labeling of homosexuality as SSA utilizes the language of infection (at a time when the AIDS crisis was still raging). Even Coley admits, in a letter, that she felt Cameron had “this thing inside” her that she didn’t. This, coupled with the camp’s insistence that the disciples’ success or failure is “entirely in their own hands” suggests their “condition” is a choice, creating a context for mental self-flagellation. When Cameron explains that she’s tired of feeling “disgusted” by herself, Jane Fonda offers that perhaps “you’re supposed to feel disgusted by yourself—you’re a teenager.” This realization that there is no “getting better”— that there is only learning to live with the discomfort—is a remedy itself.