Sometimes you just need a film that’s perfectly pleasant. That’s not to say it can’t be bold in that demeanour, possess genuine stakes, or have something to say, but that within these, it still manages to come through with a sense of warm pride. Based on the book of the same name by Emily Damoir, The Miseducation of Cameron Post manages a coy subversion of the typical tropes of teenage angst; the lives of its queer teenagers are not taken for flippancy. More than this, the threat here is something more threatening. Cameron Post (Chloe Grace-Moretz) is a lesbian teenager who, sometime in the 1990s, is sent away to a Christian conversion camp. The tale takes so much from Cameron’s very real struggle, and yet remains well-handled and empathetic; a playful style is balanced against the inherent drama of emotional abuse. While it might trip into the occasional genre pothole, it’s at its best when understanding and toying with that convention in new ways.
The narration itself plays loose with the form. Cameron is caught having sex with another girl, much to the horror of her friends and family – but the film knows the expected fallout, and thus partially elides it, essentially missing much of the confrontation. The discovery is about only her shame and under-confidence, rather than the petty outrage elsewhere. Grace-Moretz makes sure that the audience is under no illusion as to what Cameron feels, but simply that she lacks the ability to express it. It’s a central performance that speaks to basic decency; she’s the sane one who is nonetheless beleaguered by the baffling decisions of others. Consequently, the film takes for granted that her guardians are overreacting, and that the Christian pseudo-therapy is laughable and ridiculous.
The lack of obvious manipulation helps it along, then, as a general hangout vibe evokes a directionless youth
It’s that openness that makes it refreshing. The film isn’t really about the discovery of one’s sexuality per se, but instead about growing into a person that might be confident in it, in spite of pressures elsewhere. There’s a malaise of introversion that dominates Cameron: shots of her head lack lead room in front of her, boxing her in, while the score is predominantly the sound of nature and the grating Christian rock piped out to the pupils. The story is so much about how comedy is edged with that sharp reality. As consequence, the absurdity of the situation deserves both scorn and spirited mockery.
Likewise, the aesthetics of the piece manage their charm without becoming overbearing. Music is primarily diegetic, and never tacky or instructional; much the same, the 90s are played refreshingly low-key, simply a facet of a faded time and place rather than a grating presence. The lack of obvious manipulation helps it along, then, as a general hangout vibe evokes a directionless youth. As a result, Cameron’s introversion lessens with this communion and laxness, while she also learns the individual peculiarities of her other fellows. Returning to the coy subversion, the wide supporting cast of varied types might seem cliché in a coming-of-age tale. The film’s sincerity mobilises this, though; Cameron can’t feel so alone in herself while surrounding herself with young queerness. The crowd is here used to express personal individuality, as the perversity of a repressive system is turned against it.
However, the generally-agreeable nature of the piece has its own pitfalls; namely, an occasional flatness and aimlessness to the film. The second half lacks the energy of the first, falling into a routine of hardship and occasional moments of joy. It’s not that these moments are poorly-told, but only that they lack the zest of purpose and gentle outrage in the first half. The point has, by this point, been made. Sasha Lane and Forest Goodluck both breathe dry wit and personality into Cameron’s friends, and yet – beyond some brief introduction – lack much development themselves. This is Cameron’s story, and those she surrounds herself with only exist to elucidate that. It’s just a shame the movie decides to spread itself out so wide, when more focus is needed to make such a thing work.
The second half lacks the energy of the first, falling into a routine of hardship and occasional moments of joy
Similarly, the piece can’t entirely escape the mire of youth-film typicality. That Cameron’s parents had died prior to the film is practically double-underlined in dialogue, highlighting an occasional bluntness to the script. As part of this, the themes of self-expression and being, while not conceptually identical, are trotted out in a similar manner to any given coming-of-age film. Repression and self-deception are bad, and expression and confidence are good. These are noble ideas, of course; just ones possessing that lack of complexity – or at least a lack of subtlety – naturally associated with the genre.
Still, Miseducation is only somewhat diminished in that. That it takes convention and resists a dull adherence to the form is itself commendable. And the thing’s just fun. It’s exciting to see an arcane order get what’s coming – that the film handles this with a sly knowing as to its own righteousness is part of the pleasure. While it can trip into a lax haze, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; the gentleness of it helps it along, after all. So it’s nice to see a movie take such a subject matter and spin it into something that allows the subjected queer teenagers of actual history a space for pleasure, while acknowledging their plight. In a sense, that balance – of sincerity against youthful revolt – underlines so much of what makes it work.
Header image courtesy of Sundance Institute.