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What are the consequences of denying who you are? Desiree Akhavan's latest film, an adaptation of Emily M. Danforth's book of the same name, tackles the topic of conversion therapy - a pseudoscientific practice used to ‘cure' someone's sexual orientation or gender identity - and the harm it causes through the eyes of a young girl, who is sent to a Christian convention camp when she is caught kissing her best friend.
Set during the 1990s, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a throwback to a time of cassette tapes, frumpy knitwear and alternative rock music, but also one in which attitudes towards homosexual people were significantly more repressive in the US. However, this is not an issue of the past. A study released this January stated that 20,000 young people from the ages 13-17 will receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional by the time they're 18 (at least in the 41 states that currently do not ban the practice). The film is coincidentally released at a time in which the UK government is calling for a formal ban on conversion therapy, which fuels homophobia and instils self-hatred amongst recipients. This makes the film particularly relevant, with the questions that arise being apt for discussion on the oppression of sexuality, but also other struggles faced by teenagers such as bullying and moments of transition.
In the past few years there has been a positive surge of coming-of-age films with gay characters at their centre, with Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon all finding box office success, and the latter becoming the first mainstream studio teen movie to feature a gay protagonist. More rarely seen on screen are the experiences of queer young women and the variety of sexualities they might identify with. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is therefore another welcome addition to this wave of more representative cinema, looking at young people and their diverse experiences.
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Age group14+ years
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Age group16+ years
It's also another in a strand of women-fronted teenage films directed by women, exploring the difficult, awkward or affirming stages of discovering ones sexuality. In Pariah,a film that still stands out for its depiction of a young black lesbian girl, the lead character struggles with being her true self at the cost of being rejected by her religious mother. In All Over Me, two best friends are just trying to get by in their tough New York neighbourhood when they develop feelings for each other. In But I'm a Cheerleader, perhaps one of Cameron Post's clearest comparison points, a naïve teenager is sent to a gay conversion camp when her parents suspect she might be a lesbian.
Subtle, emotionally spot-on portrayal of the confusion of being a teenager.
Age group14+ years
Whereas But I'm a Cheerleader is proudly satirical and ridicules homophobia, Cameron Post is a more subtle, often bleak look at how conversion therapy camp affects its members. As an audience, we experience the camp alongside Cameron and slowly watch as the characters' personalities and motivations unravel.
In an interview with one of Into Film's young reporters, Chloë Grace Moretz describes the setting as a ‘pressure cooker', in which those Cameron befriends are simply trying to navigate growing up while simultaneously having to deal with the profound pressure of denying who they are to be accepted back home when summer ends. This is all made more complicated by the siblings who run ‘God's Promise' who genuinely believe they are ‘saving' the disciples, with one of them ‘suffering' from same-sex-attraction in the past. This makes Cameron Post a morally complicated film, in which perceptions and stereotypes of who is ‘good' or ‘evil' are left outside the camp.
The film's non-judgemental attitude towards its characters - and particularly Cameron's sexuality - is refreshing. Cameron never labels herself. In fact, she doesn't "see herself as anything". As an observant teenager who spends a large part of the film getting a grasp on the camp's ideals, it is not until the tension builds and a shocking event takes place that she begins to open up. She is depicted as a complex character who is relatable in her ever-changing attitudes or concerns, but who is still a young person deeply affected by the camp's quiet oppression.
The friends she makes at the camp highlight that the gay experience is also not monolithic. Jane Fonda actually grew up in a sexually liberated family but was sent to the camp when her mother began dating a Christian man, while Adam identifies as a Navajo Two-spirit, a term used by Native American people who identify with both masculine and feminine spirits. Although they are considered the "bad kids" of ‘God's Promise', they become Cameron's support system, offering Cameron a sign of hope for the future.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a visually captivating teenage film that offers much-needed representation for gay, lesbian and gender-variant people, while not shying away from showing the deeply harmful effect conversion therapy can have on young people's mental health. Boy Erased, another book-to-screen adaptation about a young man forced to enlist in a gay conversion program, is also set for release in February 2019. The demand for these stories demonstrates that there is still progress to be made for young people to feel safe expressing their sexuality, however, it also signals a shift in society and a hope that these dangerous practices will be eradicated.
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