Rating: 2.5 stars
Set against the backdrop of an early 1990s gay-conversion program for teenagers, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is an earnest and affecting drama that, for the most part, avoids caricature and melodrama to make its points. Based on the 2012 novel by Emily M. Danforth, and sensitively directed by Desiree Akhavan (“Appropriate Behavior”), the film is at its best when evoking the painful labor of adolescent self-discovery, a process — as rendered here — that is not unlike a butterfly struggling to emerge from a chrysalis.
In this case, that universal process is complicated by the misguided efforts of God’s Promise, a Christian reeducation camp — school is too gentle a word — whose leaders attempt to convince these young butterflies that their wings are broken. Most, but not all, of the teens in the film are coming to terms with their sexual identity. One (Christopher Dylan White) is a recovering addict who makes fun of the gay teens. Some other students have been caught masturbating.
The title character is a rising high school junior who, in the film’s prologue, gets caught making out with a girl in the back seat of a car. Played by Chloë Grace Moretz with a mixture of wide-eyed innocence and steely resolve, Cameron, or Cam, as she prefers to be called, almost immediately falls in with the problem kids after she’s sent away to this rustic reprogramming facility in the woods. One of those troublemakers is an untamable free spirit named — I kid you not — Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane of “American Honey”). The other is Jane’s mellow, hippie-ish partner in crime, Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck of “The Revenant”).
And who wouldn’t want to sit at the lunch table with these sharp-tongued wags? When Adam explains to Cameron that he’s a “two-spirit,” or winkté — the Lakotan word for someone whose male energy is being suppressed by female energy — Jane helps paint a picture with this explanatory zinger: “He’s basically the Native American David Bowie.”
Less amusing is the dialogue spouted by the school’s director (Jennifer Ehle), a priggish cartoon who chides Cameron for her nickname: “Cameron is already a masculine name. To abbreviate it as something even less feminine only exacerbates your gender confusion.” Ehle’s one-dimensional portrayal of humorless certitude — she’s given to making such pronouncements as “There’s no such thing as homosexuality” — seems unflattering to Christians, especially in the context of a film that features a Jesus-centric exercise video titled “Blessercise.” (As it turns out, that tape’s not satire. Akhavan’s producer and co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele actually found — and obtained the rights to — a vintage exercise video from the 1990s that Akhavan has described as “Jazzercise for Jesus.”)
But “Miseducation” more often opts for nuance than burlesque, and that is its strength. Although the film’s climax involves an incident of disturbing violence — only described, not shown — its argument that gay-conversion is a form of abuse is made most powerfully not when it’s shouted, but when it’s whispered.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas. Contains sensuality, drug use, obscenity, brief nudity and mature thematic material. 91 minutes.