“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is a small, solid, satisfying entry in a genre perhaps best referred to as the “Help, I’ve Been Institutionalized” drama, familiar from “Girl, Interrupted,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and others. What makes it notable are the subject — the heroine, a gay teenage girl, isn’t packed off to a mental facility but to a Christian conversion camp designed to straighten her out — and an unusual attentiveness to the emotions and secretive bonds of kids who are being taught to hate themselves.
We’re somewhere in the 1990s (the source novel by Emily M. Danforth came out in 2012), and Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) has been busted for getting hot and heavy on prom night not with her date but with Colby (Quinn Shephard), her best friend from Bible class. Before she or we have gotten our bearings she’s whisked off to God’s Promise, a facility somewhere in the countryside run by the brother and sister team of Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), a sweet and slightly shaky “recovering homosexual,” and Dr. Lydia (Jennifer Ehle), who’s the brains and crackpot theory behind the program.
A cold, immovable object, Dr. Lydia is the movie’s Nurse Ratched figure — “it’s like having your own Disney villain,” in the words of Adam (Forrest Goodluck), a gay Native American kid who’s been sent to God’s Promise by his politician father because “Me being like this [expletive] his image.” “Miseducation” could give the characters’ dilemma the House of Horror treatment, but it opts for a realism that only leaves a larger pit in your stomach. There are no bad guys here — although Dr. Lydia comes close — only terribly misguided people doing what they believe is the Lord’s work.
That work includes making the teenagers come up with reasons for their SSA — Same Sex Attraction — since homosexuality clearly can’t be innate but must be a response to trauma. “I have gender confusion because of sports, too,” Cameron is told by her roommate, Erin (Emily Skeggs), a devout jock desperate to get with the program and fooling nobody but herself.
Director Desiree Akhavan, an Iranian-American filmmaker who made an indie splash with her 2014 debut, “Appropriate Behavior,” gives us empathetic glimpses into the lives of all the conscriptees at God’s Promise, including Mark (Owen Campbell) a common-sense peacemaker; Dane (Christopher Dylan White), out and angry; Helen (Melanie Ehrlich), still reeling from her crush on a girl in her church choir; and the healthily sardonic Jane (Sasha Lane, of “American Honey”), who with Adam and Cameron forms a secret resistance cell against the program and its thought control.
At the tender age of 21, Moretz (“Hugo,” “Kick-Ass,” “The Clouds of Sils Maria”) already has nearly 50 credits on her resume; this is one of her quietest and most watchful performances, and one of her best. Cameron realizes early on that to survive God’s Promise, she’s going to have to get along or at least pretend to, and making those minute-by-minute decisions — when to smile, when to lie, when to deflect with half-truths — becomes the character’s new normal. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is actually about what it’s like to live in a totalitarian state, just one to which you’ve been remanded by the grown-ups.
At the same time, the movie leans on familiar dramatic bones, which, to be fair, are there in Danforth’s novel. When a character cheerfully says, “Looks like I’m going home at the end of this semester,” you can’t help thinking, “Nope, you’re probably not.” There’s a breakdown scene, a sacrificial lamb, and moments of uncertainty on Cameron’s part, the latter hard to credit, since Moretz doesn’t seem born to doubt.
“Miseducation” is the first gay-conversion drama to hit the screen, even though the “therapy” has been widely discredited since the turn of the millennium and 14 states currently ban the practice outright. “Boy Erased,” starring Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea,” comes out in early November, and while that film may have the higher profile, “Miseducation” shouldn’t be ignored. In its tactful, observant way, the film is unrelenting in assessing the damage that blind faith can wreak on its children and heartening in showing how those damaged find strength in each other.
Plus, the final shot is haunting and perfect, perhaps because it feels lived rather than imagined. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is a scrapbook made by the people who were there.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST
Directed by Desiree Akhavan. Written by Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth. Starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle. At Coolidge Corner. 91 minutes. Unrated (As PG-13: some disturbing images, frank discussions of teenage sexuality)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.