'The Miseducation Of Cameron Post' Review: A Quiet Queer Triumph [Tribeca]

A teen fidgets nervously with the pages of a Bible.

This is the first image glimpsed in Desiree Akhavan's sophomore effort, an equal parts melancholy-and-optimistic gay conversion drama. The antsy teen sits alongside several Bible Study peers – including high-schoolers Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Coley (Quinn Shephard), whose budding, secret romance the film keeps flashing back to – as a pastor bellows about the evils lurking within all children their age. The world sees these queer kids as ugly, but The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a joyous rebuke despite the darkness it portrays.

Whether flirting with faith or with one another, one's teenage years can be confusing. They're especially confusing for Cameron and Coley, mutually smitten girls in conservative Montana raised under the watchful eye of heterosexuality. As they attend prom with their respective boyfriends, every adult in their vicinity instructs them towards physical intimacy with the opposite gender, often from behind a camera. Even before these two girls are caught making out and Cameron is sent off to "God's Promise," a Christian gay-conversion center wrapped in a summer camp, these teens are being programmed into a lifestyle that isn't theirs.

The film takes place in 1993, removed geographically from budding metropolitan centers of American LGBT culture. The internet's reach hadn't yet provided the stability of language and self-recognition, leaving Cameron and her secretive kin with only a vague understanding of same-sex attraction – or "S.S.A.," as the folks at God's Promise put it, like some abbreviated disease. Akhavan and cinematographer Ashley Connor lure us into Cameron's pre-conversion therapy world through a distinctly straight gaze, peering in on them from alongside soft-focused foregrounds (often adults watching these teens, as if molding them in their own image) as they navigate the discomfort of expectation. Typically happy high-school moments like prom pictures and corsages turn into vignettes on the invasive. This is normality for Cameron and Coley, but it feels distinctly abnormal, as does the instructive, authoritarian God's Promise, a prison within which Cameron must seek out any ounce of freedom she's able to find.

God's Promise, despite its kindly veneer, feels just as invasive as the prom night photographs. Its open-doors policy allows camp staff to walk past the shared rooms of its "disciples" as they sleep, shining flashlights on them to make sure these paired-up patients aren't giving in to temptation. It's here that Cameron meets fellow potential "ex-gays" Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), or so she calls herself, and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), rebels against the system who go through the motions when in the staff's line of sight, but who sneak off to smoke homegrown weed the moment they're unsupervised. Their dialogue flows more freely than the stilted, buzzword-laden paeans to dogmatic conformity employed by their peers.

The one-legged Jane was raised in a hippie commune, while Adam was part of a Lakota tribe. According to the staff's "tip of the iceberg" graphic evaluations – the goal at God's Promise is to find the root causes of their S.S.A. – neither Jane's polyamorous parents nor Adam's third-gender tribal identity are compatible with a wholesome Christian image of heterosexuality. Jane and Adam's "problems" are easily identified, and the supposedly Christian solutions are so far out of the way from how they were raised that they're able to shrug off God's Promise altogether, even though they weren't put there by choice. The other kids however, aren't so lucky when it comes to recognizing alternatives.

Cameron bonds with Jane and Adam, but rebellion doesn't come as easily for her. God's Promise is merely the logical extension of the Christian hegemony within which she was raised. It's just more of what she knows, and to complicate matters further, the environment presents itself as a genuinely nurturing. John Gallagher Jr.'s soft-spoken Reverend Rick has the kids' best interests at heart. A "former" homosexual himself, he's the closest thing God's Promise has to an understanding figure, as camp director Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) doesn't quite come off quite as kindly. Marsh's approach is far more clinical, and while her ultimate goal is to instill a sense of societal normalcy, her methods manifest in ways that are confounding to Cameron. The kids are expected to speak honestly unless that honesty clashes with the mission, but more than enough of the camp's two dozen disciples have bought in to Lydia's paradoxical structure.

Ehle borders on terrifying as the camp's stone-cold ring leader. Not through some sinister smile or harmful intent, but because her goals are so pure and loving in her own mind that she's able to justify any trauma she inflicts, as if compartmentalizing her means as long she believes in their ends. Like Reverend Rick, she genuinely cares about these kids, but her version of care is about instilling obedience as opposed to employing any kind of empathy. Rick however, having been on the receiving end of what amounts to Lydia's psychological torture, breaks down when one of the disciples finally resorts to self-harm, as many in this position are known to do. He doesn't have any of the answers he claims to. No one at God's Promise does. For a structure hoping to guide lost children, this is perhaps the most terrifying revelation of all. Everyone in The Miseducation of Cameron Post is simply adrift.

Most of Cameron's peers have accepted the program slightly more than she has, and the results seem just as confounding to each of them despite their attempts at appearing balanced. Erin (Emily Skeggs), Cameron's androgynous roommate, cites her love of football as a cause of her "gender confusion" and S.S.A. – something she now hopes to overcome – but she refuses to take down her football memorabilia. God's Promise is a place of hypocrisy, a microcosm of the larger world that expects strict adherence to gendered codes and encourages them despite their pitfalls. Dane (Christopher Dylan White), a particularly aggressive disciple, leans in to overtly masculine displays of frustration to avoid being seen as weak. Mark (Owen Campbell, balancing strength and vulnerability in an especially powerful turn) molds himself according to the camp's pristine image, but still fails to find acceptance from his parents owing to his apparent femininity – an outcome entirely at odds with the Bible verses he was raised with. Even when these kids achieve the goals placed in front of them, they hurt.

Moretz taps in to Cameron's quiet confusion, grasping for a sense of understanding as she's taught to hate everything she is. Along with Jane and Adam, she attempts to find solace in stolen, fleeting moments of joy, whether inside jokes or breaking into song when the staff aren't around to stop them. But Cameron's miseducation as it pertains to her sexuality is so deeply rooted that she can't help but see God's Promise as a potential answer to the questions of adolescence. What if the plans laid out in front of her are, in fact, who she's supposed to be? Her friends and family don't seem to have the answers. No one outside of God's Promise seems to have solutions they believe in nearly as much. And – brace for the mildest of spoilers, for the film and for life itself – neither she nor the other disciples find the answers they're looking for, whether in God's Promise, or each other, or elsewhere. Nobody can tell them who they're meant to be... which is as defeating as it is liberating.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post doesn't claim to be an instructional on how to navigate the confusion of growing up (or the confusion of growing up queer). What it is however, is an honest reflection of harrowing uncertainty, broken up by moments of unbridled joy – which Akhavan captures like lightning in a bottle – as lost souls push back against a seemingly universal unfairness. The world has not been kind to Cameron (or Adam, or Jane, or to any of them) and the hands they've been dealt often leave them feeling like they deserve it. But they still pull each other up, congregating just outside the camp walls in secret, granting one another the most vital gift any queer teen in their position can hope for: a sense of comfort within each other's presence. Like permission to simply be./Film Rating: 8 out of 10