The history of cinema is littered with films that are a lot like other films, and it’s not very sporting to undercut the value of one by pointing out its similarities to another. That’s especially true if the earlier movie is not particularly well known. But perhaps the subject matter of conversion therapy, which is designed to turn gay kids into straight ones, is niche enough that the similarities between similar movies seem more glaring … if you’re one of those who have seen them both, that is.
It’s uncertain how many viewers of Desiree Akhavan’s 2018 film The Miseducation of Cameron Post will have also seen Jamie Babbit’s 1999 film But I’m a Cheerleader, but Akhavan herself had to have seen it, so her total enslavement to its structure and narrative beats is nothing short of criminal. Both films follow an outwardly heterosexual girl who is sent away to conversion therapy camp after her same sex attraction is discovered. Both films detail her adjustment to life among other gay teens who are having their “shameful desires” scrubbed out of them via slogans and therapy exercises and activities that enforce traditional gender norms. Both camps are led by an obviously homosexual man who is repeating the lie that he’s cured, and a shrill woman who plays bad cop to his good cop. Both films also at least dabble in humour as a way of highlighting the absurdity of the scenario.
The big differences between them are twofold. For one, Cheerleader opts for a sunny, pastel approach to the subject. Its lighter tone in no way diminishes the notion that this is wrong and hurtful to kids, but allows the film to have a seat at the same table as other teen entertainments from that era, such as Clueless and Election. Cameron Post takes more of the Short Term 12 approach – a comparison encouraged by the fact that John Gallagher Jr. appears in both films – of forever dangling the tragedy of the situation in front of us. One approach is not inherently better than the other, but Cheerleader is the clear champion in terms of how the films execute their respective tones.
The other difference is that But I’m a Cheerleader has an engaging cast who are directed engagingly, while Cameron Post has a stiff cast who are directed stiffly. One suspects the cast is more to blame for the stiffness than the director. Akhavan debuted quite auspiciously in 2014 with Appropriate Behaviour, in which she herself played the lead, a bisexual Persian American navigating life in Brooklyn. That film manages to be both topical, addressing the problem of revealing your sexuality to your strict immigrant parents, and deft, as it gets the little details of the hipster adjacent lifestyle just right.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is as square as Appropriate Behaviour is cool, and it starts with the star. It seems hard to recall how excited we were about the potential of Chloë Grace Moretz after she played the foul-mouthed Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, when she was just 12 years old. Simply put, she hasn’t blossomed. Her performance style is passable for the tween dystopian movies she’s appeared in, but genuine dramatic material really stretches her capabilities.
The same can be said for co-star Sasha Lane, with lower expectations. Lane was the non-actor that Andrea Arnold spotted while she was sunbathing, and subsequently cast in American Honey a few years ago. She was overmatched there and she remains so here. Then there’s Jennifer Ehle as the camp director, who has a pod person aspect to her that sub-par material only intensifies. Only Gallagher makes out okay, particularly during scene in which he’s confronted about his hypocrisy and doesn’t know how to respond.
Cameron Post is less deficient than it is obvious. The characters don’t get fleshed out at all, but they are each given certain traits that never fail to signpost what they will do later on in the story. The scenes go exactly where you expect them to go. Take the scene where four of the teens are working in the camp kitchen, and that definitive 1990s anthem “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes comes on the radio. (We didn’t mention that the movie takes place in the 1990s, for reasons that are never touched on). They gradually begin losing their inhibitions and singing along with the song, even climbing up on the counter. If you guessed that this is when the camp director comes in, crossing her arms and tapping her toe impatiently, and the music stops like the needle being pulled off a record, congratulations, you win a prize. See, this place is called God’s Promise and they don’t tolerate that rebellious rock n’ roll music.
The fact that this is a period piece might account for some of the film’s quaintness, but a lot of it is embedded in Akhavan’s listless presentation of the material. If we didn’t know that these issues had personal significance for the writer-director, and that she made such a promising debut four years ago, we might almost say she were going through the motions. Sundance disagreed, as The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the 2018 Grand Jury Prize, the festival’s highest honour. Guess the Sundance judges didn’t see But I’m a Cheerleader either.