In this outstanding drama, director Desiree Akhavan exploits the dramatic and comic possibilities offered by a Christian Centre designed to turn gay teens straight. Based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, it features a career-best turn from Chloë Grace Moretz as Cameron Post, a girl who’s caught having sex on prom night with her best female friend, Coley (Quinn Shephard). The gender of her partner isn’t exactly in keeping with local tradition, so Cameron’s concerned guardian drags the sulky teen to the residential conversion centre, God’s Promise, where a sparky girl called Jane Fonda (American Honey’s Sasha Lane) greets her with casual curiosity and barbed asides. Like Cameron, Jane’s a reluctant participant in the sessions run by Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), a gentle, effete man who comically claims to have been cured of “SSA”, aka same-sex attraction.
Very few of Reverend Rick’s charges seem to be having much luck with the training, even if they think they are, and darkly funny gender assumptions in the teaching are exposed. Cameron’s roommate, Erin (Emily Skeggs), blames her father for encouraging her love of sport, while one boy reasons that he must have spent too much time on feminine pursuits with his mother. Others, like Jane, pretend that the treatment is working, in the hope that their families will let them come home – and her childhood in a commune is an easy way to convince the teachers that she’s a product of her environment.
Performances are excellent and characters layered. Akhavan shows some sympathy for Rick’s position – this is far from a case of thoughtless Christian-bashing. There is a clearer villain in the shape of his imperious sister, Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), the centre’s co-founder. A psychotherapist with methods that range from dubious to potentially criminal, she is both a figure of fun and a sinister symbol of the dangers of extremism.
As Cameron grows closer to Jane and her friend, Adam (Forrest Goodluck), the focus is as much on friendship as it is self-discovery. Small details about life in the centre pull the audience into the world, making the film intimate and absorbing. Refreshingly, the narrative steers clear of full-on romances in the school, although flashbacks to Cameron’s past with Coley have a wistful tenderness. Akhavan directs her sex scenes with sensitivity and credibility, proving that nudity and objectification aren’t compulsory requirements.
This is undoubtedly a female gaze at work. Having explored the subject of bisexuality in the excellent Appropriate Behaviour, Akhavan looks set to continue as a compelling voice in LGBT cinema – and cinema in general.Join us on Wednesday 22 August for a preview of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Find your cinema and book tickets.