Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 02, 2018 2:53 pm 
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Teen complicity and resistance in a Christian gay conversion camp


In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, set in 1993 and adapted by the director with Cecilia Frugiuele from a 2012 young adult coming-of-age novel by Emily M. Danforth, a teenage girl is forced to enroll at a born again gay conversion therapy center called God's Promise by her conservative guardians. We're abruptly deposited, along with Cameron, at this place, "a forlorn little collection of cabins tucked away in some geographically undefined wilderness," says Emily Yoshida, in her New York Magazine review, showing the characterlessness of the mise-en-scène. Both parents are dead, which seems to leave her feeling free of obligation to please anyone. Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Cameron, the stubbornly resistant girl who hides her opposition behind a blandly accepting façade that to the people running the place, has to seem like quiet mockery. But to us, it provides too little to work with.

She finds a couple of pals she drifts in with right away. Forrest Goodluck, who got his start with a bang as Leo DiCaprio's son in The Revenant, "is mesmerizingly taciturn as Adam Red Eagle, who identifies as a Navajo two spirit" (David Sims, The Atlantic). That's not quite fair. Goodlock's Adam is an arresting presence, but he's not so much taciturn as sardonic. When someone suggests they can walk off limits, he says "Would you like to go directly to Times Square to turn tricks, or would you like to try break dancing first?" If a Native American is ever needed to play J.D. Salinger, Forrest's your man. Sometimes this place just feels like a particularly inept prep school. Which it sort of is. Adam and Jane Fonda (so she's called; Sasha Lane, who played a memorably flamboyant character in Andrea Arnold's American Honey, but here, just a pretty face) share joints and snide attitude - as teenagers do. They are Cameron's closest allies and the audience's hope of some fun that is let down in this sketchy film.

The movie goes back and forth between Cameron's flashbacks to making out with the best friend she got caught with; icky Christian musical sessions; and therapy group circles or outdoor layabouts where the director of the place, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) talks in barely decipherable psychobabble. Ehle looks like she belongs somewhere much nicer, like, say, the TV "Pride and Prejudice," where she played Elizabeth Bennet, or Terrance Davies' movie about Emily Dickinson, where she was cast as the poet's sister. She leaves little impression here.

"You don't know what you're doing, do you?" says Cameron to Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), two thirds of the way through, when a trapped-feeling boy has done serious harm to himself and been rushed to the hospital. "You're just making it up as you go along." The movie itself feels that way. The young Reverend, the male leader of the Christian brainwashing camp, weeps and says, "I don't know how to answer you right now," and we realize not only is he a shaky vessel - a reprogrammed gay man himself with his own gender confusion - but on top of it John Gallagher Jr. doesn't seem to know too well what he's doing in this role. Nonetheless this is the film's most touching moment.

Cam is a runner, and her training sessions alone around a soccer field are the film's core of stability. We can also relax when she is alone with Adam and Jane. Out of these still moments comes something, I guess, the trio's resolution not to go with the program. But this is not much of a development.

In short, the action drags, which David Sims says is inevitable since the story is "so much about inertia," i.e., Cam's resistance to change. But action should never drag even when it's inaction, not even - least of all - in Beckett. The trouble is with the mashup editing, the vague script, and Chloë Grace Moretz. Moretz has been good as an action and horror star (Kick-Ass, Carrie), and doesn't seem to do repressed emotion or concealed thought with particular subtlety. Her expression seems fixed on a shy pout through every scene. One might like to see her trying other expressions. Or kicking some ass.

Miseducation made me think of Sean Durkin's psychological horror movie, Martha Marcy May Marlene (NYFF 2011), about a cult at somewhat the kind of rural outpost where this action takes place. At moments, this film hints at creepiness. But Durkin's is steeped in it. As an indictment of cultish brainwashing Miseducation has no force, because it doesn't go into enough detail about how it would work. It's appalling that Desiree Akhavan lets it end the way she does. Just a little tweak, just a line, would have helped. But no, nothing. This movie is lame in almost every respect. As usual, we cannot fault the actors. The casting hardly seems awesome, but it's the writing, direction, and editing that are inept.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, 91 mins., debuted at Sundance where it won the US Grand Jury Prize; at least fifteen other festivals. It opened in France 18 July, where it fared poorly with critics (AlloCiné press rating 2.8). USA release begins 3 Aug. 2018; in more locations 10 Aug. Metascore a generous 70%.

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