“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”
This is how emily m. danforth’s novel starts. Cameron at this stage is just out of childhood, and she loses her parents the same day that a dare with her best friend Irene opens up a whole new world to her. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that Cameron’s first kiss with another girl ends with the trauma of losing her parents, as the guilt of that moment, and the question of whether her parents’ death was somehow a punishment by god for her behaviour, haunts her for the rest of her youth.
Desiree Akhavan’s adaptation never shows us this moment. In fact, nearly all of the details of Cameron’s youth in Montana’s Miles City, which take up about two thirds of the novel, are missing from the film.
What Desiree Akhavan does achieve, in spite of only focusing on a narrow part of danforth’s novel, is still remarkable. She creates a foundational trauma that happens in a flash of quickly-paced scenes, Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz, somehow perfectly cast for this) and Coley (Quinn Shepherd, a few years ago very impressive with a short but memorable stint on Person of Interest) stumbling, kissing against walls, stealing moments away together, in secret, until they are finally discovered by Cameron’s homecoming-date and best friend Jamie after having sex in a car. There’s no need to really hear what happens after, because we can guess, even without having read the book: Jamie, making horrified noises while Cam tries to put her clothes back on and Coley weeps in the car, inconsolable, ashamed, Cam being sat down by her Aunt Ruth, and then, Cam being taken away to God’s Promise, an evangelical conversion therapy centre.
We don’t really know much about Cam at this point in the film, while she is well-established in the book, and it’s hard to judge how this moment of horror would play out for someone who isn’t familiar with Cameron Post from danforth’s writing. In the book, it’s the culmination of her low-key struggle with Aunt Ruth, who comes to raise her after her parents’ death because her grandmother isn’t really able to do it by herself, as kind and gentle as she is with Cameron’s identity and grief. Aunt Ruth means well, which is probably the worst part of it, because Cameron prior to that point has been raised in an agnostic household and now has to cope with a re-born evangelical Christian who thinks she is saving her niece’s soul by making her go to Church, church group, and eventually, the conversion camp. There is no ill-intent in this, or even hatred, just an utterly and horribly misguided love.
Cameron herself is – sarcastic, stubborn, questioning. She takes what she’s learned about herself with first best friend Irene Klauson to the same place that so many other queer kids have taken their questions – film - and educates herself via her small town’s videostore (because the book, and the film for that matter, are set in the early Nineties), sharpening her sense on classic film Personal Best. She runs wild with her best friends (so many scenes in the book are memorably set in an abandoned hospital building, and some of the allure of it comes from how free these kids are to do with their days more or less as they wish, without much parental supervision). She swims competitively and meets a gay girl who is about to move to the Pacific Northwest, and will send her dispatches in the form of letters, phone calls and riot grrrl mixtapes from a world where it seems so much easier to be gay. Cam soaks all of it up, and tries to find meaning, in a way, between her attempts to comprehend how it relates to her parents’ death and to being in a small town, trying to shape an identity, until she falls in love with Coley.
I think it’s worth knowing all of this while watching the film, I think it adds to the layers and layers, as much as the film works on its own. It adds to know how falling in love with Coley feels to Cameron like a bomb going off, an inevitable time bomb that will blow everything apart. Lindsey, her gay friend, from far away cautions her not to go after a straight girl, but Cam can’t help herself (plus Coley isn’t exactly straight, just scared out of her mind). In the book, she seduces her by using The Hunger (in the film, it’s Donna Deitch's beautiful drama Desert Hearts, in both cases it’s good they never make it to the end). Like in the film, they get caught, and Cam is the one paying the price, the one carrying the burden, the one sent off to the conversion camp.
A lot of the complexities of Cameron at this point are hard to convey in a film that mostly relies on sparse and predominantly sarcastic dialogue between its main characters as well as facial expressions to tell its story. In the novel, Cameron narrates her own story, and she is particularly good at capturing how seasons, weather and landscape play into people’s behaviour – especially kids who are still in school, who come to life during summer holidays. When she arrives at God’s Promise she is shell-shocked – the moment when she and Coley got caught in the car replays a few times, in particular Coley’s refusal to be comforted, and Cameron’s guilt because she thinks that she made her do something she didn’t want to. Since the film doesn’t have the connection between Cameron’s realisation that she is gay and the death of her parents, it uses the guilt over having seduced Coley to turn Cameron into a character who isn’t entirely opposed to the teachings of God’s Promise. It’s the same position the occupies in the book – somewhere between the kids who are there believing deeply and profoundly that they are wrong, and require healing, and the kids who know they are only there because their parents are wrong and misguided, that they only have to survive long enough, or play the game, to be free again. It would be much easier to watch a character interrogate the teachings of God’s Promise from the start, refusing the buy into it entirely – like Cameron’s soon-to-be friends Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane, as perfectly aloof and cool as Jane Fonda is in the book) and Adam do, who have created their own little community of ditch-weed smoking survivors of Dr. Lydia’s heinous teachings. We don’t see too much of that teaching on the screen, the main part is the theory of the iceberg, according to which gayness is only the part of the problem that is obvious to the eye, whereas the majority of the kids’ issues remain buried under the sea, and require (for the most part, profoundly traumatising) inspection before they can hope to overcome their SSA. Cameron is curious enough about that part that she investigates everyone else’s iceberg, trying to understand everyone along the lines of Rick and Lydia’s interpretation of their identity, trying to fill in her own iceberg to understand herself. In the novel, the iceberg fits in well with Cameron’s previous attempt at finding a metaphor for her complex inner life – after her parents’ death, she starts to decorate a dollhouse from her childhood with found and stolen objects, but maybe in 2018, after Sharp Objects, it’s for the better that this detail didn’t make it into Akhavan’s film.
Since this is 1993, Cameron doesn’t really have the same luxury of being able to just refute the claims of Reverend Rick and his much easier to hate sister Dr. Lydia from the start. As much as Jane and Adam attempt to make her understand that there are other villains in her story – Coley, for one, once she figures out that she was the one who ratted her out, not her friend Jamie – there is still a part of Cameron driven by guilt that buys into some of the thing that God’s Promise is selling, even if she isn’t as completely convinced by it as her room-mate Erin and some of the other kids are. It’s so easy for Rick and Lydia to sell the idea that being gay is wrong because it matches what the kids have heard from the people who’ve sent them there – who are meant to love them unconditionally, and care for them – and because in 1993, it would’ve been easier to argue that having a family, and living a life not burdened with adversity and conflict, is easier when you’re straight.
It takes a while for Cameron to catch on to the fact that Rick and Lydia have absolutely no idea what they are doing, that their hack-psychology isn’t cut out to deal with actual crises, that their limited conception of self and personhood creates an atmosphere in which someone will inevitably break, even more so because some of these children weren’t sent there by loving parents or guardians who wanted the best for them, but hateful and despicable irresponsible people who want what they think is evil cut out of their children, with no regard to their mental and physical well-being. The most horrible moment in the film is taken directly from the book – it’s when Mark (Owen Campbell, absolutely remarkable in the role), the poster boy for the camp’s success, a kid who passionately quotes scripture, believes profoundly in the teachings, and is so lovable and compassionate on the phone that he brings in most of the donations finds out that his father is still refusing to let him come home because he remains too effeminate. Distressed, he quotes scripture in group therapy that makes it clear how much he has been made to hate himself. Rick and Lydia, utterly incompetent, leave him alone, and he severely hurts himself.
It’s a horrible moment in which Cameron finally realises that these people who are meant to be responsible for the children under their care are not capable of caring for them, that these amateurs do not know what they are doing. Ironically, an investigator is sent to question the kids about the conditions in the camp (the man tells her, point-blank, that he is there to investigate practices, not judge the intent behind it). He asks if she trusts the Rick and Lydia, if she believes that they have her best interest at heart, and Cameron can’t even begin to put into words how impossible that question is to answer in the affirmative. Rick and Lydia and the culture their represent are tasked with destroying any sense of self-possession and self-knowledge, any sense of true identity, that the kids have, and Mark’s fate is only the most jarring example of what happens when those things are taken away from a person.
A more quiet moment, and one that I’m so glad has made it from the page into the film, is between Erin and Cameron. The film, like the book, very intentionally plays Viking Erin (Emily Skeggs doing perfect magic) up for laughs – her obsession with a sports team, her narrative of herself as being gay because she is too much into sports, and bonded with her dad over it, her earnestness in trying to become straight, her attempts to become more fit to hilarious “Blesserzise” videotapes. Cameron is so caught up in her blooming friendship with Adam and Jane Fonda and trying to make sense of her remaining feelings for Coley that she completely misses the many moments where it’s pretty clear how much Erin cares for her – until Erin literally leaps on her, after Cam has a vivid sex dream, to try and save her from having evil thoughts until she changes her mind and makes her come instead. She still insists, after, that she wants to become straight, that she wants a “normal” life, except it’s so clear, in everything she does, that she likes Cameron too much. It’s like a transformation happens in those few minutes, where Erin goes from a character played for laughs to turning into a whole complex sexual being (who responds to Cameron, after she says that she really didn’t see it coming, that it is because she didn’t think of her that way – and she sounds like she deeply wants to be thought of that way), where she gloriously triumphs over all the moments where anyone would’ve made fun of her for being too much into God. The fact that God’s Promise is trying to eradicate this spirit and passion out of her is as much proof of its failings at basic humanity as Mark’s horrible act of self-destruction is.
This is why The Miseducation of Cameron Post is at its best when it reminds us that the kids trapped at God’s Promise are exactly that, teenagers who are trying to make sense of themselves, who become gloriously themselves when they are finally able to turn a radio to a non-Christian-rock radio station and sing “What’s Going On” together (perfect, in a way, after Sense8 two years ago). God’s Promise is trying to break them down so it can more successfully instil its hideous ideology – another horrible moment is when Lydia cuts off Adam’s (Forrest Goodluck) beautiful hair, an act of pure hatred against his identity that refuses to be shaped into evangelical Christian forms. Rick and Lydia’s agenda ultimately has to fail because the sheer amount of life, of passion, of desire for freedom that refuses to be beaten or prayed out of Adam, Jane Fonda and Cam will carry them into a life far away from this horror. At least that’s the note the film ends on – the three of them, riding away from God’s Promise in the back of a pick-up truck, playfully and freely flirting with a real life of their own.
It’s a much less ambiguous ending than danforth’s novel, which, because it starts the way it does, ends with Cameron swimming the lake in which her parents perished, attempting to make sense of how her loss and her grief connect to how and whom she loves. In both cases, it would have been wasted time to prosecute the institutions we already know are evil, and it is glorious to see instead a celebration of those who successfully overcome, simply by being free.
2018, directed by Desiree Akhavan, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, John Gallagher Jr., Quinn Shephard, Jennifer Ehle.
Originally published in 2018
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