‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ Is the Better Conversion Camp Movie
Mar 14, 2023
From teen comedies to horror movies, the cruel, abusive world of conversion therapy camps has served as inspiration for many movies in the past few decades. Some, like 2000’s But I’m a Cheerleader, manage to capture and poke fun at the ridiculous, pseudo-scientific set of ideologies this kind of “therapy” espouses. Meanwhile, others, such as the 2022 slasher They/Them, fail to properly harness the horror of these institutions and turn them into something cinematically terrifying. Between these two extremes are those movies that tackle the issue of sexual conversion without subterfuges — straightforward dramas that purport to show us the pain and trauma caused by these places for what they are. This approach has produced what is by far the best movie about conversion camps ever made, a heartfelt indie gem by the name of The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
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Directed by Desiree Akhavan, The Miseducation of Cameron Post stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a teenage girl sent to a Christian conversion facility after her boyfriend catches her having sex with another girl. Brutally honest and, at the same time, extremely kind to its characters, The Miseducation of Cameron Post shows the world of conversion camps for what it is: an institutionalized form of abuse held afloat not just by the fundamentalist beliefs of few, but also by state neglect and parental approval. A coming-of-age story like no other, the film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the damage caused by these institutions and makes it clear that the only form of acceptance that one can find in a society that sees you as monstrous comes from within. But even with so much going for it, The Miseducation of Cameron Post never got the attention it truly deserved. Due to some bad timing on the part of its distributor, the movie got overshadowed by a very similar, less impactful, but more star-studded flick.
RELATED: From ‘Wolf’ to ‘But I’m A Cheerleader’: How Are Conversion Camps Depicted In Cinema?
Cameron Post hit theaters in the US in August, 2018. Just one month later, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased began its tour of film festivals around the globe. In November, 2018, the film got a limited release in American cinemas. With a cast that features big names like Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Canadian director Xavier Dolan, and Australian singer Troye Sivan, it quickly took over the debate around conversion camps and the movies they inspire. Now, five years after Edgerton’s and Akhavan’s films hit theaters, it is time for us to re-examine them and bring Cameron Post to its rightful place.
What Is ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ About?
Image via Sundance Institute
Cameron Post’s titular character is a young Christian girl living with her aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler) after her parents’ death in a car crash, years prior. Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Emily M. Danforth, the movie has Cameron shipped over to the God’s Promise conversion camp after news of her relationship with a female friend from school and Bible class reaches her aunt. Run by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), God’s Promise teaches so-called “gender confused” kids to reject their sexuality and act according to Christian, heteronormative expectations. It’s an alleged treatment process that leads to nothing but trauma, isolation, and depression, but that is presented by its leaders as an act of love.
Initially confused, Cameron struggles with resisting or participating in Dr. Marsh’s program. Little by little, however, she begins to see the true face of God’s Promise. When a fellow intern, Mark (Owen Campbell), commits a drastic act of self-mutilation after his father refuses to let him return home, something clicks inside of Cameron. All the sadness she had been feeling during her time in the program turns into rage. Thankfully, Cameron doesn’t have to go through this ordeal alone. With the help of two unlikely interns, a child of former hippies named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and a Lakota two-spirit kid called Adam (Forrest Goodluck), Cameron is able to find love and acceptance. Her story culminates with her escaping the compound with her found family, the three of them fully aware that they must build themselves a new world, for there is no place for them in the old one.
What Is ‘Boy Erased’ About?
Image Via Focus Features
Meanwhile, Boy Erased is a story about being accepted by the same people that once rejected you. Based on author and activist Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, Joel Edgerton’s movie tells the story of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), a pastor’s son that is sent to a conversion facility after his parents learn of his interest in other men in a somewhat contrived way. It all begins when Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) receives a phone call from a man that sexually assaulted Jared posing as a guidance counselor and claiming to be concerned about her son’s homosexuality. Despite having been outed as part of an elaborate lie, Jared eventually confesses to his parents that he does feel attracted to men. This prompts his father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), to ask the counsel of more experienced pastors, who suggest Jared be sent to an assessment program run by Love in Action.
Unlike Cameron, Jared is initially very accepting of the Love in Action methods and seems to legitimately believe that he is able to change. However, much like Cameron, he slowly realizes that there is no such thing as an ex-gay and that the treatment offered by Love in Action is nothing but a cruelty disguised as a kindness. After a fight with his conversion camp counselor, Mr. Sykes (played by Edgerton himself), Jared begs his mother to take him off of the program, and she promptly agrees. He returns to college, comes out, and begins a relationship with another man. His experiences in Love in Action serve as the basis for a series of anti-conversion camp articles. The movie ends with Jared finally going back to speaking terms with his father, though it is clear that there is yet a long road ahead of them towards full acceptance.
In ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post,’ the Most Important Love Is Self-Love
Image via FilmRise
Boy Erased and Cameron Post are such structurally similar movies that it is nearly impossible not to compare them. It isn’t just that the plots’ outlines sound alike: even characters and story beats are all but the same. In both movies, the main character is outed to their legal guardians by someone else: Jared by the man that raped him in college, Cameron by her own high-school sweetheart, Coley (Quinn Shephard). Both Love in Action and God’s Promise are run by a former conversion camp victim, and both stories have a desperate act of self-harm committed by another character as a turning point for their protagonists — in Cameron Post, it is Mark’s attempt to cut off his own penis with a razor, while in Boy Erased, it is Cameron’s (Britton Sear) suicide. However, the way each movie deals with such similar material couldn’t be more different. And, in this game of comparison, Cameron Post usually comes out as the winner.
This doesn’t mean Boy Erased is a bad movie, mind you. It’s just that Edgerton misses many opportunities that Akhavan takes without pause. The first and most glaring of all is the opportunity to make Jared’s story about self-acceptance instead of about assimilation. It’s not that we don’t get moments of Jared dealing with his own internal turmoil. The very way in which his interest in men is presented to us, with the rape he suffers at the hands of Henry (Joe Alwyn) appearing before his affectionate night with Xavier (Théodore Pellerin), mirrors the transformation of Jared’s initial thoughts about his sexuality as something ugly into the knowledge that being gay doesn’t mean giving up on beauty and love. But this self-acceptance journey plays second fiddle to what really matters in Boy Erased, which is Jared’s acceptance by his mother and father. The culmination of Jared’s journey isn’t learning to love himself, but earning back the love of Marshall and Nancy by proving to them that conversion therapy is evil, and they never should’ve sent him to such a place. Jared’s story ends not with him finding peace within himself and rejecting those that wish him harm, but with him returning home in the loving arms of his mom and later emotionally reuniting with his dad. Victory, for Jared, is being taken back in by the people that sent him to be psychologically tortured in the first place.
Meanwhile, victory for Cameron Post and Desiree Akhavan looks like three kids leaving behind a racist, sexist, and homophobic establishment that can’t and will never accept them. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming-of-age story in which the goal of the journey is becoming your own person in the world, and not just someone’s daughter or niece. If others want to love you for who you are, so be it, but you can’t stay behind begging for the affection of those that wish you harm. The conclusion of Cameron Post stands in sharp contrast with the ending of Boy Erased, and, in this sense, it is symptomatic that the first film features a teenage girl going out into the world by herself while the latter has a grown man returning to his parents’ home.
‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ Pulls No Punches, But It Does Have Its Soft Spots
The conclusion of Boy Erased doesn’t come out of nowhere. Throughout the entire film, the parents of the kids committed to Love in Action are painted not as participants in their children’s oppression, but as misguided figures. Either that or they’re just plain evil, like Cameron’s family, that beats him up with a Bible in a public exorcism. One kid’s parents pick him up from the compound immediately after he gets hurt during an exercise, angry that Mr. Sykes and his crew have so little regard for their wards’ safety. Jared’s mother states that she was never okay with having her son shipped to a conversion camp, and both Nancy and Marshall are shown as innocent victims of the wrongful counsel of elderly men.
Meanwhile, in Cameron Post, the love the parents and legal guardians claim to feel for the kids at God’s Promise is never a redeeming factor. Ruth might tell Cameron that she loves her and there is no doubt that she believes she is doing the best for her niece, but this doesn’t make her any less of an oppressor. Likewise, Mark’s father doesn’t have to beat him with a Bible to crush him. All he has to do is tell him that he isn’t yet manly enough to come home. The Miseducation of Cameron Post pulls no punches when it comes to showing the parents of conversion camp kids for who they truly are. The movie never allows its characters to hide behind good intentions or misguidedness. Abuse is abuse, pure and simple.
But, at the same time, Cameron Post has a particular soft spot for a character that is also present in Boy Erased: the former conversion camp intern turned homophobic preacher. While in Edgerton’s film we only see the worst side of Mr. Sykes, Akhavan shows us Reverend Rick at his most vulnerable, especially after Mark’s desperate act. We see him as both victim and executioner, contributing to the abuse of young kids, but also trapped in a lie that was built for him. At the end of the movie, when Cameron, Jane, and Adam leave the compound for good, there is a long, silent shot of Rick eating cereal by himself after saying goodbye to the kids that are allegedly going on a hike. It’s a shot that reinforces his loneliness and that reminds us that, while others may break free of God’s Promise’s hateful ideology, Rick remains a prisoner. It’s a shot that can only be found in a movie that understands the real damage done by conversion therapy.
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