Film that examines conversion therapy feels timely

The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Directed by Desiree Akhavan. Starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Jennifer Ehle and Forest Goodluck. Rating: 8 (out of 10)

In June, City of Vancouver council voted to ban conversion therapy, or “reparative therapy,” the anti-LGBTQ practice designed to change a person’s gender identity. It was the first Canadian city to do so.

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 It’s only fitting then, that The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance, should be the Closing Gala film at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which ends Aug. 19.

 The film is based on Emily M. Danforth’s popular young adult novel, directed by Desiree Akhavan and starring Chloe Grace Moretz as Cameron, a junior in high school who is sent to a religious conversion therapy camp after she is caught making out with her best friend.

 The girls had a secret relationship going for a while; it’s only after her jealous prom date – a boy – catches them in the act that things go sideways. Cameron’s parents died a few years back and her well-meaning guardian is persuaded by members of her church to send Cameron away.

 She arrives at God’s Promise, which purports to be able to cure her SSA (same-sex attraction) through rigorous bible study, reflection, and through gender-neutral activities like hiking.

The camp is presided over by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) a counselor whose only credentials are having “cured” her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr) of his gayness.

“What feels like fun is actually the enemy,” insists Rick. Kudos to Akhavan for side-stepping caricature in the portrayal of the supervising adults at the camp, who seem just as quietly broken as their charges.

 While her roommate purifies her body by working out to a “Blessercize” VHS, Cameron strikes up a friendship with two pot-smoking outcasts, Jane (American Honey’s Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck). Adam’s dad recently went into politics and can’t afford the bad press of having a gay son. But according to Lydia, one of Adam’s greatest sins is his shaggy hair: “Keep your hair out of your eyes,” she barks, “there’s no hiding from God.”

 The teen “disciples” are in various stages of denial and hopeful progress with the program. For her part, Cameron has to plagiarize the symptoms and expressions of shame from the artwork of other campers because she just doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with her. It’s only after she receives news from home that Cameron starts to have feelings of self-doubt.

 “I’m tired of feeling disgusted with myself,” she says.

“Maybe you’re supposed to feel disgusted with yourself when you’re a teenager,” counters Jane.

 The scenery is deliberately drab and homogeneous, echoing the teens’ boredom and sense of confinement. There are no walls here, however: Cameron and her friends can leave any time they want. But all of the kids were sent to camp by their parents and have no home to go back to, so they’re faced with the impossible choice of living a lie back home or life on the street. This fact is stated nonchalantly, which makes a violent episode at camp too jarring in comparison to the rest of the film. More exploration of what these kids endured back home and what they face upon their release would have put the scene in context.

 Moretz is almost too good, too naturally assured, for a script about queer kids in crisis. It creates distance between her character and the others and leaves the audience a shade less concerned for her than we should be. The ending is a victory of sorts but offers no guarantees; you can see it on the kids’ faces.

 The Miseducation of Cameron Post is set in 1993, a quarter-century ago, yet it feels current. Today only 14 states in the U.S. have enacted laws to ban the practice of conversion therapy, and the outmoded treatment still operates quietly under the guise of church and private counselling all over North America.

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