The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

MV5BNGI5ZDlkN2EtNTY5NC00ZDdjLTkzODktNzkwOGMwODcxZTI4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTMxODk2OTU@._V1_Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

When Emily M. Danforth published “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” in 2012, it was a different world in many ways.

Inspired by the real-life story of Zach Stark, a 16-year-old blogger from Tennessee who shared on his MySpace page about being sent into gay conversion therapy by his parents, the young adult novel was a coming-of-age story about a young girl forced to attend a “faith-based” conversion camp.  At the time, it felt like part of a larger social movement towards awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ rights.

It’s painfully ironic that Desiree Akhavan’s new film adaptation of Danforth’s book finds itself coming, six years later, into a culture where opposition to the legitimacy of same-sex attraction – and the rights of those who feel it – has resurged into the social and political atmosphere with emphatic and frightening force.  In the current context, the release of such a film seems like radical activism.

Set in 1993, the movie stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Cameron, a teenager who lives with her conservative aunt after losing both parents in an automobile accident.  While attending her high school’s homecoming dance, she is caught making out with another girl in the back seat of a car.  She quickly finds herself being sent off to a remote “summer camp” in the Montana wilderness where residents are subjected to counseling designed to realign their sexual orientation.  Cooperative at first, she finds kindred spirits among the other teens and attempts to settle in for the duration; but as she becomes more aware of the psychological damage being inflicted on her fellow campers, she begins to realize that this ostensibly loving environment is in fact a dangerous fraud.

The film initially creates an almost comedic tone, allowing us a few sly chuckles over the excessively wholesome atmosphere of the camp and the obvious denial of its “ex-gay” counselors.  As the story progresses, however, the layers begin to peel back; we discover the dark toxicity lurking beneath the surface, and our bemusement gives way to outrage.  In this way, screenwriters Akhavan and Cecila Frugiuele follow the novel’s tactic of slow revelation to good advantage.

The screenplay does make a significant alteration from the source material, however; in Danforth’s book, Cameron is twelve, but the film boosts her age well into her teens.  While seeing a little girl subjected to the kind of brainwashing tactics portrayed here might have been a more potent indictment against conversion therapy, the added maturity does permit a deeper exploration of Cameron’s sexual feelings – which gives her plight a visceral urgency that might otherwise have been absent, and allows for a more deeply layered performance from the movie’s star.

That Moretz is excellent in the title role comes as no surprise; she has proven herself a gifted young actress even when saddled with sub-par material, and here she rides an intelligent wave of thoughtful writing that is worthy of her talents.  What makes her performance even more praiseworthy is the way she allows her fellow actors to shine around her.  Cameron serves as our point of access to the story, but it’s our involvement in the experiences of those around her that solidifies our emotional engagement, and Akhavan’s direction lovingly ensures that these other characters – and the actors that portray them — are given full weight and scope on the screen.

Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck, as Cameron’s two closest friends at the camp, bring authenticity and wry humor to their roles as they embody the kind of defiant resilience that comes from being a lifelong outsider.  Owen Campbell has a powerful turn as Mark, a camper under excessive pressure to conform, delivering a wrenching biblical recitation that highlights the hypocrisy at the root of faith-based oppression.  Emily Skeggs is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking as Erin, desperate to suppress her own obvious sexuality even as she struggles with her attraction to Cameron.  As Reverend Rick, a “successful” camp graduate now turned lead counselor, John Gallagher, Jr. infuses a character that might easily have been a one-note joke with humanity; as his faith is challenged and his confidence is shaken, we cannot help but feel compassion for someone who is himself a victim.

In fact, the only character that fails – appropriately – to elicit audience sympathy is the camp’s overseer, Dr. Lydia Marsh.  In the hands of two-time Tony-winner Jennifer Ehle, she is perhaps the most coldly sanctimonious screen villain since Nurse Ratched.  With a mix of barely-concealed arrogance and soft-spoken cruelty, she represents that most terrifying of antagonists – a “true believer,” utterly convinced that her vision of the world justifies her authoritarianism.  It is a testament to Ehle’s skill that she makes this character utterly believable and burns her into the viewer’s mind with chilling permanence.

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is not a flashy piece of cinema; Akhavan, in directing her second feature, has rightly chosen to tell the story straightforwardly, letting the fine acting and writing carry the weight.  Aided by Ashley Conner’s radiant cinematography and a dreamy musical score by Julian Wass, her film transports us to a time and place that lulls us into a sense of tranquility.  This mood belies the turmoil going on in the hearts and minds of its characters; just as in real life, there is suffering in the stillness, and it’s to Akhavan’s credit that she shows it to us without resorting to manipulation from behind the camera.

As for its subject matter, “Cameron Post” is first out of the gate to deal with what appears to be this year’s hot-button issue in LGBTQ-oriented cinema; coming in November is “Boy Erased,” another drama centered on gay conversion therapy that boasts a higher-profile cast and a bigger studio push.  This filmic one-two punch calls timely attention to a barbaric practice that continues to be advocated in some sectors of American society, despite the complete lack of science behind its precepts and the fact that it has been rejected by the American Psychiatric Association as ineffective and potentially harmful.

At one point in “Cameron Post,” its protagonist gets straight to the heart of the argument against conversion therapy when she asks, “How is being programmed to hate who you are not psychological abuse?”  It’s a rhetorical question, of course – but sadly, there are still many people who think they have an answer.

For the rest of us, Akhavan’s quietly powerful film is more than just a celebration of the rebellious queer spirit.  It’s a call to action.

That Summer (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

By now, the story of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little” Edie, is well-known lore within the popular culture.

Aunt and cousin to Jackie Kennedy/Onassis and Lee, this pair of eccentric society women fell on hard times and lived in isolation together for decades at their decaying Hamptons mansion.  When local authorities threatened to evict them for health and sanitation violations, Jackie and Ari Onassis donated money to finance the necessary repairs – staving off unsavory publicity and ensuring that the reclusive Beales could maintain their strange, co-dependent existence for years to come.

That existence was revealed to the wider world in the 1975 documentary, “Grey Gardens,” filmed by two brothers, Albert and David Maysles, who had initially been enlisted by Lee Radziwell to make a film about her and Jackie’s own childhood in the Hamptons.  When they accompanied her to visit the Beales during the summer when their home was being brought up to code, they became entranced, and subsequently suggested to Radziwell that they shift the focus of their film to her reclusive relatives instead.  Radziwell abandoned the project, but the Maysles were undeterred.  They secured permission to return and spend a few weeks filming with Big and Little Edie; the result was a film that turned the women into unlikely cultural icons and has gone on to inspire a 2006 sequel, an HBO biopic, a Broadway musical, and a legendary segment on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

It has also come to enjoy tremendous popularity among gay men, perhaps because the personas of the two women – particularly the “staunch” Little Edie, with her bold “sweater-as-a-head-wrap” fashion sense – resonate deeply with many of their own sensibilities.

Gay or straight, fans of “Grey Gardens” have new reason to rejoice, thanks to Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson, who brings us a “prequel” of sorts in the form of his new documentary, “That Summer”

Constructed from long-buried private footage taken mostly by artist/photographer Peter Beard, the film documents the lives of then-beautiful and stylish Radziwell and her circle of famous friends – who include Beard, Andy Warhol, and Truman Capote, among others – during the summer of 1973.  This cadre of sophisticates is ostensibly Olsson’s focus – but part of their summer activities was that fateful visit to Grey Gardens, and the main attraction here is the inclusion of the legendary Beales.

The early scenes of Radziwell and her entourage are lovely and nostalgic; these beautiful people exude effortless grace and elegance, seeming completely at ease in a lifestyle of which most of us can only dream.  Fascinating as this material may be, though, it’s not particularly revealing; its most significant value, perhaps, is that it reminds us of a bygone era when America’s super-wealthy population was not represented predominantly by classless buffoons.

The four reels of film that Olsson uses as his centerpiece are a different matter; these segments heavily feature Big and Little Edie, and they offer a much rawer look at the Beales than we get in “Grey Gardens.”  Making that film, they knew that the eyes of the world would soon be upon them, and they were putting their best foot forward.  They do it here, too, but with less self-awareness.  The roughness creeps in at the edges; their cheer is a little more desperate, their patience a little thinner.  They’re the same Edies that we know and love, but unplugged.

The mansion itself is also rougher.  As dilapidated as it is in the Maysles’ movie, it’s heartbreakingly worse here.  The camera lingers on its piles of clutter, its rotting walls and ceilings, its disintegrating furniture.  The atmosphere, instead of being rustic, is gloomy; the omnipresent cats and raccoons seem less adorable, somehow – and so do the Beales.

This doesn’t make them any less likable – in fact, this subtle difference in perspective brings out their humanity, and opens us up to feel even more compassion for them.  These women endured years of pain and hardship – the broken dreams and shattered relationships of their lives have been well-documented since “Grey Gardens” first brought them into the public eye – and in this film, we can see the scars.

Olsson wisely follows the Maysles’ example by employing the same “direct cinema” style; the footage is presented without narration or commentary (aside from a few transitional moments when we hear reminiscences by the modern-day Beard or comments by Radziwell excerpted from a 2013 interview), allowing the audience to make what they will of the Beales and their jet-set visitors.  That everyone comes off in a sympathetic light is hardly surprising, given that the material itself was created by its participants, but this politeness doesn’t take anything away from the film; the civility of its tone is appropriate to its genteel subjects, and savvy audiences can still easily read between the lines to draw their own conclusions.

“That Summer” is a movie with a tough act to follow; its predecessor into the world of the Beales was the proverbial lightning in a bottle, one of those shimmering masterpieces of cinema that captured a moment in time that can never be recreated.  Through a combination of art and happy accident, “Grey Gardens” became somehow magical, and no follow-up could hope to match its remarkable quality.  It’s to Olsson’s credit that his movie doesn’t even try.  Instead, it contents itself with offering another peek at Big and Little Edie, and by giving us a little more context through which to see their world.

It’s not a classic on its own, but it’s a valuable supplement to one – and that’s enough to make fans of the Beales welcome it with an open heart.