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.

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Isle of Dogs (2018)

isleofdogs_poster_trailerToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

For fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson, the arrival of a new movie by the quirky auteur triggers an excitement akin to that of a ten-year-old boy opening a highly-coveted new toy at Christmas.  For them, something about the director’s style conjures a nostalgic glee; the puzzle-box intricacy with which he builds his cinematic vision combines with the detached whimsy of his characters to create an experience not unlike perusing a cabinet of curiosities, bringing out the viewer’s inner child and leaving them feeling something they’re not quite sure of for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on.

Those who love his work – and there are a lot of people in this category – find it immensely satisfying.

Those who don’t are left scratching their heads and wondering what the point was to all that tiresome juvenilia.

Anderson’s latest, “Isle of Dogs,” is likely to meet just such a split in opinion – and this time, thanks to accusations of cultural appropriation, marginalization, and outright racism, it’s not just about whether you like the directorial style.

His second venture into the field of stop-motion animation (the first was “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009), it’s an ambitious fable set in a fictional Japanese metropolis named Megasaki, twenty years into the future.  The authoritarian mayor, the latest in a long dynasty of cat-loving rulers, has issued an executive decree that all the city’s dogs must be exiled to “Trash Island” – including Spots, the beloved pet and protector of his twelve-year-old ward, Atari.  The boy steals a small plane and flies to the island, where he enlists the aid of a pack of other dogs to help him rescue Spots from the literal wasteland to which he has been banished.  Meanwhile, on the mainland, a group of young students works hard to expose the corrupt mayor and the conspiracy he has led to turn the citizens against their own dogs.

In usual fashion, Anderson has made a film which expresses his unique aesthetic, marked with all his signature touches: his meticulously-chosen color palette, the rigorous symmetry of his framing, the obsessive detail of his visual design, and the almost cavalier irony of his tone.  These now-familiar stylistic trappings give his movies the feel of a “junior-adventurer” story, belying the reality that the underlying tales he tells are quite grim.  The cartoonish quirks of his characters often mask the fact that they are lonely or emotionally stunted – and the colorful, well-ordered world they inhabit is full of longing, hardship, oppression, and despair.

“Isle of Dogs,” though ostensibly a children’s movie, is no different.  Indeed, it is possibly the director’s darkest work so far, and it is certainly his most political.  Though it would be misleading to attribute a partisan agenda to this film, it’s not hard to see the allegorical leanings in its premise of a corrupt government demonizing dogs to incite hysteria and support its rise to power, nor the social commentary in the way it portrays bigotry based on the trivial surface characteristic of preferring dogs to cats.  Make no mistake, despite its cute and fluffy surface and its future-Japanese setting, “Isle of Dogs” can easily be read as a depiction of a world possessed by the specter of Nationalism, and a clear statement about life – and resistance – in Trump’s America.

In terms of visual artistry, Anderson has outdone himself with his latest work.  The painstaking perfection of the animation is matched by the overwhelming completeness of the world he and his design artists have executed around it.  Myriad elements from Japanese culture are used to build the immersive reality of Megasaki (and Trash Island, of course), and the director adds to his own distinctive style by taking cues from countless cinematic influences – Western and Eastern alike.

Of course, the film’s setting and story invite comparisons to the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa – whose iconic Samurai movies were an acknowledged influence.  Anderson mirrors the mythic, larger-than-life quality of those classics; he uses broad strokes, with characters who seem like archetypes and a presentation that feels like ritual.

These choices may have served the director’s artistic purpose well – but they have also opened him up to what has surely been unexpected criticism.

Many commentators have observed that, by setting “Isle of Dogs” in Japan (when he himself has admitted it could have taken place anywhere), Anderson is guilty of wholesale cultural appropriation, co-opting centuries of Japanese tradition and artistry to use essentially as background decoration for his movie.  In addition, he has been criticized for his tone-deaf depiction of Japanese characters; his choice to have their dialogue spoken in (mostly) untranslated Japanese serves, it has been said, to de-humanize and marginalize them and shift all audience empathy to the English-speaking, decidedly Anglo actors who portray the dogs.  There has also been objection to his inclusion of a female foreign exchange student as the leader of the resistance, which can be seen as a perpetuation of the the “white savior” myth.

Such points may be valid, particularly in a time when cultural sensitivity and positive representation are priorities within our social environment.  It’s not the first time Anderson has been criticized for seeming to work from within a very white, entitled bubble, after all.

Even so, watching “Isle of Dogs,” it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it’s a movie about inclusion, not marginalization.  It invites us to abandon ancient prejudices, speak up against institutionalized bigotry, and remake the world as a place where there is room for us all.

It’s a message that seems to speak to the progressive heart of diversity.  Whether or not the delivery of that message comes in an appropriate form is a matter for individual viewers to decide for themselves.

For Anderson fans, it will probably be a moot point.

The Happys (2016)

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Today’s cinema adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

There’s no shortage of movies about fresh-faced out-of-towners coming to “the big city” to make all their dreams come true, only to have their naiveté stripped away by a few hard knocks from harsh reality.   In a substantial percentage of those movies, the big city in question is, of course, Hollywood.

With so many such films already out there, it’s undoubtedly hard for any filmmaker to come up with a new angle on the subject.  Typically, even the good ones are predictable.

Going into “The Happys,” a new film about a young Wisconsin girl who moves to L.A. with her high-school-sweetheart-turned-fiancé after he is cast in a major Hollywood film, one might expect the same familiar patterns to be played out yet again.

At first it seems like pretty standard stuff; but writer/directors Tom Gould and John Serpe throw us a new twist almost immediately, when Tracy (Amanda Bauer) comes home to the couple’s new Los Feliz rental and catches Mark (Jack DePew) having sex with another man.  The two decide to stay together – they are too enraptured by their happily-ever-after fantasy to let it go; but though this seems to go well, at first, Tracy grows restless.  She begins to explore the local culture, developing a fondness for food trucks and striking up an intriguing new friendship with a reclusive neighbor (Rhys Ward).  Meanwhile, Mark finds himself struggling not only to keep his repressed sexuality from jeopardizing his relationship, but also from derailing his career in homophobic Hollywood before it has even begun.

Such a set-up could go in a lot of different directions.  “The Happys” could have been anything from slapstick comedy to bleak tragedy, but Gould and Serpe have chosen a middle path, and it suits their film admirably.

Establishing its identity squarely from the beginning as a “dramedy” with a comfortably quirky indie flavor, it floats between seriousness and humor at about the same levels found in your average rom-com.  It honors the struggles of its flawed characters by taking them seriously and treating them with fairness and dignity, but it’s not afraid of poking a little fun at their foibles, also.

It pushes furthest towards the direction of outright parody in its treatment of the movie business (an establishment which serves, after all, as the story’s only real antagonist) – but here, too, it works hard to avoid passing judgment.  Even Mark’s brass-balls agent (Melissa McBride), who pushes him to stay in the closet and use his girlfriend as a beard, is depicted with relative sympathy; she is, after all, only another cog in the wheel of the Hollywood machine.

“The Happys,” for all its overtures towards satire, is less interested in ridiculing the status quo than it is in overcoming it.  It gives us stereotypes we think we know – the devoted girlfriend who defines herself through her relationship, the closeted pretty-boy terrified of being found out, the mysterious recluse with a secret and a heart of gold – and makes of them a little community, letting them discover more about themselves through their interactions with each other and the larger world.  In the process, it opens them up and allows us to see parts of ourselves in each one of them.

In this way it bears more than a passing resemblance, both in form and in spirit, to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.”  Just as that book does with San Francisco, it revels in its Los Feliz setting (the film’s title is a reference to it), making the neighborhood itself into a character and ensuring plenty of enjoyment for locals who will recognize many of the locations.  There’s even an eccentric landlady – a former child star played to perfection by Janeane Garofalo – who acts as a sort of den mother, passing on wisdom and neighborhood history to her little family of renters.

It carries a similar message, too.  Each of its characters starts their journey with an identity dictated by outside expectations and spends the rest of the movie learning to recognize and embrace who they really are.  As one of the film’s minor characters sums it up, “the closer you get to your true self, the happier you are.”  One can imagine Mrs. Madrigal saying those exact same words.

“The Happys” inhabits a more confined space than “Tales,” though, with fewer characters, a less sprawling landscape (both geographically and culturally), and a lot less time to win us over.  As a result, some of it feels a little hasty; revelations come too quickly, as do realizations and reconciliations, and some of the plot contrivances stretch the willing suspension of disbelief a little too far (an unknown newbie actor from the Midwest landing a lead in an A-list Hollywood movie is just the first of several implausible plot points).

Still, it’s a movie with a lot of heart, along with a worthy and much-needed agenda.  Gould and Serpe address the issue of homophobia without being preachy or confrontational, opting instead to treat it with kindness and candor.  Mark, though he may be callous and dishonest, is also broken and unhappy, and the fact that we are led to empathize with him and even root for him raises this movie above the level of the many less-sincere attempts to confront such characters onscreen.

Likewise, in Tracy, the movie gives us a strong female protagonist whose growth from subservient mouse to independent woman presents her at every stage as a likeable, understandable person – not just some caricature of femininity.

Both these characters work, despite the occasional elision of their arcs, thanks to their heartfelt performances.  Bauer, in particular, gives a strong performance, carrying the bulk of the movie on her shoulders and making it look good as she does so.  The whole cast, in fact, does nice work.  Garofalo is a treat, as is McBride; Arturo del Puerto brings good-natured charm (as well as a dash of diversity, something the movie could have done better at including) as Ricky, a flirtatious Latino food truck operator; and young out actor Brian Jordan Alvarez has some memorable scenes as one of Mark’s co-stars, contrasting his openly gay persona against DePew’s tightly guarded artiface.

There are times in Gould and Serpe’s film when one wants it to go further – to sharpen its satirical teeth and bite harder into the toxic hypocrisy of the Hollywood system or to shine a harsher light on the psychology of the closet; but that’s okay.

Thanks the sincerity and positivity of its intentions, it offers up so many sweet and life-affirming moments that it is easy to forgive it for not making a deeper dive.