The eponymous character of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, is a queer teen orphan sent to a gay conversion camp by her legal guardians. She obviously doesn’t like the de-gaying center but doesn’t seem to have a rebellious bone in her body. Cameron spends her time in therapy—both for gender confusion and art—and engages in gender-appropriate activities such as peeling potatoes with other girls. Were there any sense of subversion to the tale that follows, one could perhaps take this moment for a Jeanne Dielman reference. But director and co-writer Desiree Akhavan isn’t interested in multi-dimensionality, only tame literalness.
The closest Akhavan’s heroine gets to expressing discontent is changing a radio station from a religious program to 4 Non Blondes’s “What’s Up,” which gets her in trouble with the camp’s invigilators. The film, which takes place in 1993 and is based on a novel by Emily M. Danforth, feels like a Hallmark Channel version of But I’m a Cheerleader, which is to say it lacks the playfulness and sense of camp exaggeration of the Jamie Babbit film.
Akhavan, whose previous Appropriate Behavior featured a hilariously anti-heroic bisexual Brooklynite played by the filmmaker herself, doesn’t care to highlight the absurdity of The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s plot through comedy or nuance. Everything stays in the realm of binarity—desire versus sin, religion versus sex—while therapy is dismissed as an everything-has-to-do-with-the-mother Freudian scam. And yet, it’s not dismissed extravagantly enough, despite how much some of the lines could have lent themselves to amusing delivery: “Would you let drug addicts throw parades for themselves?”
The refusal to produce a campy critique feels more like the product of lack of imagination than a purposeful repudiation, as the film makes some timid attempts at humor with karaoke scenes featuring songs about love (“Where do all the lonely hearts go?”) and a lackluster Jane Fonda-esque exercise guru, whose VHS tapes Cameron utilizes as part of her de-gaying regime. Akhavan’s resorting to the news of a character’s suicide attempt as a narrative device also reads like the most lethargic of narrative ready-mades—one that results in a final scene featuring three teenagers in reticent ’90s garb in the back of a pickup truck with a Clinton-Gore sticker on one of its windows.
In this moment, the camera tries out an artier temporality, lingering on the characters for much longer than the conventional Hollywood shot. It’s a figment of a film that could have been—one built on juvenile anger and budding nonconformity rather than the well-behaved naïveté of televisual teens that Akhavan spends the rest of her film pursing.