The motto of one of 2018’s hit makeover shows reads “more than a makeover.” On Queer Eye, five men are called upon by a collective of significant others, friends, and parents to travel to homes in the countryside and provide instruction on how its subjects can live a better life. The motto’s ambiguous modifier suggests that the instruction is more than just advice on what to wear and a collection of meals to cook around the house. More yearns. It suggests that its characters—and implicitly, maybe the viewer—are currently not doing enough and that enough can easily be done. More can be accomplished and is within the reach of an hour like a Facebook video of someone making a cake in 30 seconds. More is, itself, more than its signifiers, the half-tucked-in shirt and the recipe for the homemade pasta. A better life is at the tips of your fingers, and aren’t you ashamed you haven’t done it yet? America is the land of the sanctimonious self-help gospel, from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography to entire sections of bookstores. The finger of any success story is always pointed at us: what have you been doing with your life?
I thought about this history the second time I watched Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a coming-of-age story that largely takes place in a gay conversion camp called God’s Promise set in the early 1990s. Navigating the camp is Post (Chloë Grace Moretz), a newcomer whose experiences the movie chronicles. The stern recommendation to change her sexual orientation isn’t her own—her religious aunt sends her there after Post’s parents die and she is caught in a sexual relationship with another girl (this backstory is a much bigger part of the almost 500-page YA novel that the movie is based on). There, she becomes friends with Jane (American Honey’s Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), both of whom have been sent to the camp in order to improve the fortune of their parents: one’s parents are entering local politics and the other’s recently remarried one of the faithful. The firmness of these details renders the absurd fantasia of the premise of a conversion camp—train away the gay!—into crisp, cold detail.
Conversion camps are, of course, very real stuff. Approximately 698,000 people have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives, the Williams Institute reported earlier this year. Another estimated 77,000 teens today will undergo conversation therapy before they turn 18. Before Akhavan’s film, representation of conversion therapy on film (outside of documentaries) was relegated to a single, poorly received late ‘90s comedy, Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader!. Babbit’s film is earnest but unserious and is perhaps most notable for starring RuPaul as one of its ex-gay camp counselors.
Because of its sheer singularity—though another conversion therapy drama, the Lucas Hedges-starring Boy Erased, will be released closer to awards season— The Miseducation of Cameron Post carries the heavy political mantle of representation. Perhaps it is for this reason that some critics have seen fit to designate it an “issue film.” Emily Yoshida, a contributor to Vulture, writes that “Cameron Post is the kind of film that openly courts falling into the cinematic limitations of an ‘issues film’” territory that she worries is not edgy enough to capture her attention. Peter Travis feels similarly, likening the movie to an “after-school special” because it “lacks teeth,” lazy critical shorthand to denote laziness. The movie’s lack of toothy theatrics also bothers Richard Brody, who devotes half a paragraph to single-handedly solving the problems facing some tens of thousands of teens everywhere (“What would happen if one of the interned teens stood up and spoke out?” “Is there a local reporter who knows about God’s Promise?,” he asks.)
Akhavan codes the movie in the rhetorical logic of the American self-help tradition. Being gay becomes a problem that one has to solve and, what luck, Post has been brought to a place where she can see how it is done. What I thought most striking about this is that it breaks down gayness into a series of signifiers—the hair, which could be cut, the desire, which could be explained. Essentially, the operation of a conversion camp is reduced to fake it till you make it and if you spend your entire life faking it, then so what? You would have a nuclear family, a job that you received without being discriminated against, and what so many people want, which is merely a life. If only they would do enough!
At the center of the movie is Post herself, who Moretz embodies with a pensive, slacker charm, an automatic intelligence that leads a critic like Yoshida to bemoan her character as ‘lifeless.’ It is anti-dramatic, sure: we are not on the edges of our seats wondering if Post will renounce her attraction to women and instead we wait out the absurdity of the camp’s politics. But in Moretz’s performance, which is now the subject of an Oscar campaign, we’re not looking at a character who even wants to have the normal, average life and must climb over some obstacles to do so. The value system of the movie is itself queer and makes Cameron Post the polar opposite of, say, a film like Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon–another adaptation of a coming-of-age YA novel that centers on a gay protagonist that opened this year. I’m thinking of the glad-handed assuredness of that movie’s opening line—“I’m just like you”—something the movie follows through and defines by being, in its own words “maybe, not that gay.” Cameron Post gets a fascinating amount of comedic mileage out of exactly how obviously gay its characters appear to us but are denying themselves to be, a note that the movie perhaps does share with But I’m a Cheerleader!. Coming out, on one hand, can be taken for granted in a movie set in a gay conversion camp but deciding to own that identity is something else entirely and that slight demarcation, between knowing something about yourself and deciding to become it entirely, is Post’s dramatic arc. And one that is no less inspiring: Cameron Post’s final shot is joyous.
The lack of overt theatrics are less the movie’s failure and more like its right to own its own territory. In Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s debut, she plays a bisexual daughter of Iranian immigrants who spends most of the movie refusing to come out to her parents. Yet this refusal plays out, more or less, to the movie’s end: the safe chill of a temporary existence is preferred to the dramatic impulse to present scenes of melodramatic revelation. Maybe a temporary existence is all that will be, maybe that moment will never come. Life still has to be lived and Akhavan insists that it isn’t necessarily joyless.
This is maybe why not enough action happens in Cameron Post and, unlike Brody, Akhavan doesn’t provide her characters with ways to improve the situation life has given them. Instead, she uses the realness of its setting to depict the exact tragedy of abiding inside a system that you cannot on any level relate to. In this way, Post is very much the camp’s Randle McMurphy, a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but instead of deploying Jack Nicholson’s cynical post-hippie charisma, Moretz is wary, maybe tired, of having to fight. Instead she, and Jane and Adam, just leave. The realization is that the system, ultimately, is too morally bankrupt to save them. It doesn’t know what to do with its promises besides “issue” them.
The lack of action is a form of resistance to these empty promises and to the notion that a movie about something serious has to present a way out of it. (There are political movements you can join; in the beginning of this year, there were some 50 bills in 24 states you can call your legislator about.) Instead, there is only us, who live striving to create a kind of life that we can tolerate. Inside the byzantine horror of sending children to conversion camps, Akhavan sees the larger horror of telling them, or us, what a well-adjusted life looks like. More will come.