In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” gay Montana teens are forced into conversion therapy. And it’s likely that arthouse audiences inclined to seek out a Sundance-approved indie about Red State religious dogma will find some of its more brimstoney bits outdated or exaggerated.
But then — and perhaps you’ve also seen “The Handmaid’s Tale”? — reminders of reality will intrude.
Director Desiree Akhavan’s source material (the YA novel by Emily Danforth) was inspired by the very true story of Zach Stark, who was sent to a Love in Action camp much like the one we see in the movie. Akhavan understands that there’s no need to amplify authenticity, and grounds her story with an admirable, if ultimately frustrating, subtlety.
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Here the camp is called God’s Promise, which is the last thing Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is thinking about in the back of a car after a high school dance. It’s 1993, and the recently-orphaned Cam resides in a small town with her Aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life”). Had Cam been found fooling around with a boy, Ruth might have looked the other way, but because Cam was caught dress-down with another girl (“Blame” director Quinn Shephard), she and her blighted shame are immediately shipped out of sight.
The camp is run by the sternly terrifying Lydia (Jennifer Ehle), who has already successfully cured her formerly-gay brother, the benevolent Rev. Rick (John Gallagher Jr.). You might feel that quotation marks would be appropriate for some of the words in the previous sentence, but both Lydia and Rick are entirely convinced of their truth. And they are determined to spread that truth to the next generation.
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Among the other kids struggling with SSA — same-sex attraction, the love that dare not spell itself out — Cam’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs, “When We Rise”) and the touchingly awkward Helen (Melanie Ehrlich) distinguish themselves as aspiring true believers. But Cam is immediately drawn to Jane (“American Honey” standout Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck, “The Revenant”), gentle-souled rebels who share both her skepticism and their own well-hidden stash of weed.
Akhavan (“Appropriate Behavior”) presents her point of view — that the camp is basically a socially-sanctioned cult — without falling back on broad strokes. It’s hard to think of a more highly-charged topic than the brainwashing of vulnerable adolescents in the name of God, so it’s certainly to her credit that she uses such a determinedly understated style.
Moretz’s quiet performance is perfectly attuned to this approach: Cam spends much of her time observing the action around her with a mature intelligence that’s undercut by youthful inexperience. She’s self-assured but she’s also 16, and authority figures who insist that down is up and up is down need to be kneecapped at every opportunity.
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The supporting cast is equally impressive. Each teen has a few standout moments, and each actor makes the most of them. If casting agents are looking for a diverse range of talented newcomers, this is a pretty great place to start.
Akhavan is wise to keep her focus on the kids, but this does leave their elders with fewer opportunities to shine. Marin Ireland (“Sneaky Pete”) deserves more screen time as the camp teacher, and Ehle’s role as the designated villain reads as overly familiar. But Gallagher modulates his performance beautifully, finding both the confidence and confusion in Rick’s hard-won beliefs.
Ultimately, the film could have used more of that complex conflict. We’ve seen Christian doctrine explored with greater nuance many times before, in both fiction (“Higher Ground” being an apex) and documentaries (“Jesus Camp,” for starters). And Gallagher’s presence reminds us that “Short Term 12” tread somewhat similar territory with as much insight as empathy.
There is plenty of the latter here. Akhavan and cowriter Cecelia Frugiuele have thoughtfully streamlined Danforth’s novel, making smart cuts and sensitive alterations. (Cameron is only 12 in the book, a significant change used to strong effect.) The soundtrack, which replaces Cam’s beloved Breeders with Christian rock, aptly defines this intimate culture war. And the striking cinematography by Ashley Connor (“Butter on the Latch”) underscores a long American tradition of setting one’s religious distortions in a naturally beautiful setting.
So we have a compelling storyline, and characters we genuinely care about. But since Akhavan doesn’t drill deeply enough, the movie ends at what should be its midpoint. And her lovely final shot winds up feeling as avoidant as it is poignant.