Set in 1993, The Miseducation of Cameron Post focuses on a young queer woman who finds herself sent to God’s Promise, a center designed to “treat” teens “suffering” from “same-sex attraction,” after she is caught having sex with her female best friend on prom night. Based on Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 novel of the same name, the film functions as a coming-of-age story that’s endearingly universal and remarkably timely.
Impressively, 2018 Sundance Jury Prize winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post manages to explore the controversial practice of conversion therapy, the belief that homosexuality and gender identity can be “cured” via psychological and/or spiritual tactics, as a harmful response to queer identities while avoiding preaching to the audience. Co-writer/director of the film Desiree Akhavan explains her approach to the script, “I didn’t have an agenda of telling a queer story or a gay conversion therapy story. To me, it was an honest, funny, heartbreaking story that rung true to the teenage experience, whether you’re gay or straight.” The result is a nuanced snapshot of life at the conversion center, which Akhavan hopes helps “humanize gay people to the public.”
In a more ideal world, humanizing anyone wouldn’t be necessary and the film’s exploration of conversion therapy would function exclusively as a metaphor for the teenage experience. Akhavan explains, “You think there’s something wrong with you, the adults around you attempt to expel it, and then you realize that’s just who you are.”
In 2018, it’s almost possible to forget that The American Psychiatric Association only removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders forty-five years ago in 1973. While the declassification largely ended the medical community’s attempts to “fix” same-sex attraction via electroshock therapy and lobotomies, conversion therapy remains a hotly contested practice throughout the United States.
As a member of the queer community, Akhavan appreciates the relevance of conversion therapy in today’s political climate. Though the film is set twenty-five years in the past, Cameron Post’s experience is not a relic of an older time: as of August 2018, it is only illegal to subject minors to conversion therapy in 14 of the 50 states, meaning youths in 36 states are still at risk of undergoing this practice. The 2016 election took place during filming and Akhavan found that Donald Trump’s impending presidency led her to be “more focused and determined to make this film as a direct response to the administration.”
For actress Chloë Grace Moretz, who portrays protagonist Cameron Post, the pertinence of the script is part of what drew her in: “I could take what I’ve always been, which is an activist, ally, and advocate and I could partner that with art.” She elaborates, “It’s such a natural depiction of being a young gay person. There are no stereotypes.”
In an effort to ensure that the film portrayed the experience at God’s Promise accurately, Akhavan and Moretz met with young survivors of conversion therapy. The film also partnered with The Born Perfect Campaign, a movement started by the National Center for Lesbian Rights in 2014 to end conversion therapy in the United States.
Mathew Shurka, Co-Founder of the campaign and survivor of conversion therapy, explains that activism on the subject is largely focused on passing legislation to protect young people from the same experiences he endured. “Therapists should be affirming,” he insists, “A therapist should never dictate or advocate if you’re going to be gay or straight or trans or queer or whatever. It’s the patient who is in self-discovery and they [therapists] are there to affirm that journey and support them however they need. That’s what real therapy’s about.”
It is precisely because it explores the realistic consequences of what happens when therapists stray from that aim that The Miseducation of Cameron Post stands out in the canon of gay films. Cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader provided a comical view of conversion therapy and mocked those who believe in its possible success. Conversely, The Miseducation of Cameron Post provides a deeper approach befitting the current culture wars rocking the nation. Moretz aptly describes it as “showing something on screen that has not been represented this way before.”
Moretz is unequivocally right: we have never been granted this take on conversion therapy before nor have we seen it co-written and directed from the perspective of a queer woman of color. The film delivers a diverse cast, a universal coming-of-age story, and a fresh look at the struggles that forge queer friendships.