Director: Desiree Akhavan
Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher, Jr., Sasha Lane
OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.
The above phrase, commonly stamped on wing mirrors, was made famous as a cinematic punchline in 1993 when Steven Spielberg used it to comic effect in Jurassic Park. In that movie it was a playful wink to the T-Rex chasing our heroes in a fleeing Jeep.
Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore picture The Miseducation of Cameron Post also makes use of the phrase, but to more subtly rueful effect. Coincidentally(?), her film is set in 1993 and stars Chloë Grace Moretz in – lets start the hyperbole – the performance of her career to date.
Here the phrase appears as Moretz’s titular Cameron Post looks regretfully at her home town disappearing away from her. Having been caught canoodling on the backseat of a car at prom with her female best friend Coley (Quinn Shephard), Cameron is being shipped off to God’s Promise; a woodland gay conversion camp.
OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR both cruelly mocks her vanishing sense of normalcy and underpins the film’s central heartbreaking notion; self-image can be warped, either from without or within, until the person you are – or think you are – is distorted, false. The proportions all wrong.
This is the second great film to appear in as many weeks that takes pot shots at unblinking and extremist interpretations of Christianity. Or, rather, organisations that use religion as a brand for something much more insidious. Between Cameron Post and BlacKkKlansman, a picture is being painted of the conflict and denial wrestling in the deep and rolling hills of Middle America.
Spike Lee’s film swipes hard – as well it ought to when extremism is so heinous – but Akhavan uses similar mockery (the Blessercize aerobics workout is actually a thing!) to pick more deftly at an area of faith that hurts where it aims to heal. Stony faced camp leader Dr. Marsh (Jessica Ehle) is no pantomime villain; rather she is more frighteningly well-intentioned. Her glass smile comes from a place of self-satisfaction and perceived charity. Camp counselor Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) might be the most tragic of all; a ‘successful’ convert, living a barefaced lie of having prayed the gay away.
Moretz plays younger than her years convincingly (she’s reminiscent of Kirsten Dunst that way). Her Cameron is tight-lipped but constantly engaging with an incredulous eyebrow that’s always ready to rise. She is a sponge, soaking up the strange new environment that acts, effectively, as her prison.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post doesn’t play God’s Promise as a venue of cruel punishments or physical abuse. More often the exercises presented to the teens seem bizarre, inept and ineffectual (collage, anyone?), but there’s a pervasive sense of emotional abuse occurring underneath the pleasantries. As Cameron articulates to a visitor late in the film, what else can you call it when people are programmed to hate themselves?
Akhavan introduces us to a range of quirky yet grounded characters sharing Cameron’s fate, some accepting and brainwashed, others as suspicious as she is. And while some of the former are quite openly played for laughs, Akhavan sees an emotional truth in each of them. For much of the picture we’re expected to find unwavering devotee Erin (Emily Skeggs) the source of weird amusement. But the film then challenges that position with an intense and intimate scene which acts as counterpoint to our assumptions. One comes to wonder if this story might’ve been told from any of the characters’ perspectives.
Akhavan impressed greatly a couple of years ago with her bisexual New Yorker comedy Appropriate Behaviour, which showcased how funny she is in front of the camera. The Miseducation of Cameron Post evidences how assured she is becoming behind it. With its tight-knit group of impressive young stars, uniformly excellent performances and thanks to the presence of John Gallagher Jr, the film it most frequently draws to mind is lavishly praised indie Short Term 12. Like Cretton’s film, Cameron Post isn’t afraid of playing for raw emotion, tapping into our nostalgia over the pains of growing up and finding yourself.
It is the expertise at pulling those strings that makes Cameron Post one of the exemplary coming-of-age movies of recent years. The vast majority of us watching won’t ever have had the misfortune of having been to gay conversion camp, but the setting still allows for many of the truisms of being young to present themselves, be it carefree dancing on a table top, sneaking off to do something you shouldn’t be, or breaking down in tears after trying your damnedest not to.
This last refers to a scene which belongs solely to Moretz, showcasing the reserve she has tapped for this movie. She’s shown her growing maturity as an actor previously (impressing and surprising in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds Of Sils Maria), but Cameron Post will likely prove to be the turning point in her career from Kick-Ass starlet to next-level performer. She’s a revelation here.
Another film kindled in the memory here, for me, is Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. The prom sequence near the top of the picture has the same wry observational quality, capturing the awkwardness of youth, but it’s there in the subtle undercurrent of sadness that runs throughout the picture. Akhavan’s film is a lament for squandered or forsaken youth. Not forsaken in the sense that these minors are sinners; they’re not. No, forsaken in the sense that they are smothered at a time when they should be soaring.
I loved watching this picture. So much so that I can forgive the strange emptiness of its ending. So much of The Miseducation of Cameron Post works through our associations with other indie pictures, or more fundamentally than that, the narrative beats we’ve come to anticipate. The film follows these, hitting a dramatic apex that you can see coming a mile off. And yet the end feels oddly airy. There’s a temptation to ask, “Is that it?”
The answer, of course, is that it isn’t it. What’s witnessed is but a chapter. The film is a snapshot. Like Lady Bird before it. Or so many other heartfelt tales of youth and young womanhood. Make peace with that and there’s so much to admire and enjoy here. It is a blush, a swoon, a tear. All at once.