The first time I heard about Conversion therapy I thought it was a bad joke. They take young gays and bisexuals and try to convert them to a state of spiritual straightness? No way. That's like taking someone with brown eyes and making them pray until they turn blue. Except it's a lot more pernicious and damaging. Sadly, it's not a joke.
There's been one mediocre comedy about conversion therapy, 1999's But I'm a Cheerleader, and now there's an excellent drama, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Here we find an assortment of teens shuttled off to a bucolic, woodsy camp, where a steely woman and her "converted" brother preside over the process of "recovery," as if sexual orientation were comparable to drug addiction.
It's 1993, and Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz in the best performance of her young career) is sent to Conversion camp after she's caught making out with her best friend in the parking lot outside the big homecoming dance. Off she goes to God's Promise, where she joins other boys and girls, or, in camp parlance, "disciples," who have committed the sin of SSA (same-sex attraction). Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) is the guitar-strumming poster boy who smiles and explains through gritted teeth how much better life is now. His older sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), runs the place through a combination of psychological manipulation and passive-aggressive shaming.
Miseducation works largely by resisting the straw-man potential inherent to depictions of quackery. The film's conversion forces aren't raving lunatics; they're merely among the many in the world who use the Bible to justify their own fears and prejudice. Gallagher and Ehle wisely underplay their roles, and director/co-writer Desiree Akhavan, working with a novel by Emily M. Danforth, is content to damn the process through quiet observation, interaction among the fine young cast and one pivotal and grisly turn of the plot. Conversion therapy has been so thoroughly debunked by now (and outlawed in several states) that the film doesn't need to scream its condemnation from the rooftops. It comes through loud and clear.
This gives Miseducation the opportunity to blossom as a film about charting your own course in a cockeyed world. Cameron finds her tribe, which includes Jane (Frisco's Sasha Lane), a cryptic girl who grows her own weed in the forest adjacent to the camp; and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American whose attraction to men has gotten in the way of his father's budding political career. (An example of the psychology of Conversion: Dr. Marsh chastises Adam for growing his hair out, which supposedly makes him less manly.)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a modest-size film that performs a service opposite to that of Conversion therapy: It respects the vulnerability that accompanies the emergence of any young person's sexuality. Later this year, Boy Erased will tell a similar tale, about a Baptist preacher's son (Lucas Hedges). These are vital stories, especially at time when all forms of social prejudice are trickling down from the halls of government and into school hallways. Conversion therapy has largely been unmasked as a cruel fraud, but the miseducation continues.