The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

As a shithead atheist teenager, I always made an obnoxious show out of not participating in the Catholic rituals my parents dragged me through. This bratty rebellion reached its pinnacle when I was enrolled in Confirmation classes in high school, which I agreed to complete as a final favor for my family before never stepping foot in a church again (wedding & funerals excepted). I was a total ass in these Confirmation classes, joining forces with the few fellow over-this-bullshit weirdos who had gotten pulled into that orbit to just generally disrupt the process in a way I’m sure annoyed the more earnest participants around us. I recognized a lot of that same dynamic in Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It’s just that the film’s gay “conversation” camp (read: emotional torture camp) setting makes for much higher emotional stakes than whether I could shut my bratty suburban mouth during a lecture about the sins of abortion or masturbation. The Miseducation of Cameron Post offers a sympathetic eye to that kind of bratty camaraderie in the face of religious evangelism, using the setting of gay conversion “therapy” (again, torture) to frame that snotty attitude as an essential act of political rebellion. It even goes a step further to offer the same sympathy to the counselors on the other end of the dynamic, lost souls who do not know the extent of the damage they’re causing to the teens in their “care.” If I were a mature, well-rounded adult I would praise the radical empathy of that approach. The truth is, though, that a large part of me is still a shithead teenage atheist who wants to see the piss taken out of those evangelizing counselors. I much prefer the glibber takes on this same material like Saved! & But, I’m a Cheerleader!, because at heart I’m still a combative brat.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the titular brat of this particular religious battle, sent to conversion therapy when she’s caught smoking weed & having sex with her closeted girlfriend in the parking lot outside their high school prom. I’ve always had a difficult time taking Moretz seriously as a dramatic actor, but her casting here leans into her strengths as dazed, confused participant in a culture she doesn’t believe in. From her awkward body language when trying to fit in as a straight girl with a boyfriend to her puzzled expression at the sermons of her God’s Promise prison, her visible discomfort fits the character & script here, when it’s often distracting in other projects (this year’s Suspiria, for one). The Christian instructors at God’s Promise are just as confused & uneasy, using “stern love” (abuse) and reinforced gendered roles to attempt guiding hormonally-rattled teens back to a Godly, de-sexed lifestyle. The truth is that they don’t have any more idea what they’re doing there than the kids do, and there’s a humanizing vulnerability in that lack of confidence. They’re essentially attempting to erase identities that haven’t been fully forged yet, as teenage years are a time of transformation & self-discovery. They push our protagonist to admit who she is (gay) and why that’s wrong (it’s not), but she struggles with the exercise because she’s too young to be sure of the answers. For fellow campers who take the Christianity portion of the therapy dead seriously, this forced, unnecessary identity crisis can lead to volatile, life-threatening results. For our more dismissive, out-of-place POV character it’s more a disorienting haze of psychobabble & mixed messages. She holds onto the other non-Christian weirdos in her vicinity (including American Honey’s Sasha Lane) for life support as she resists “the treatment” offered by God’s Promise. The resulting US vs. Them battle of stubborn wills unfolds in a mature, even-handed, tender drama; it’s an admirable search for kindness & understanding when what I really wanted was for the kids to lash out & burn it all down.

There’s a highly-specific version of queerness bucking against religious conservatism in Akhavan’s debut, Appropriate Behavior, that feels like it’s largely missing in this follow-up. The entire film has a kind of sanitized YA sensibility that feels entirely foreign to the NYC hedonism of Akhavan’s particular POV. The times when her wilder, more passionate depictions of queer sexuality do crop up (mostly in the protagonist’s nighttime sex dreams & erotic memories) it feels like an out-of-nowhere intrusion on an otherwise delicately told story. The Miseducation of Cameron Post could have used some of that rebellious hedonism in its daytime drama, whether or not it would have been faithful to its source material novel. The closest we get to an open act of bratty rebellion is in the inclusion of a so-bad-it’s-good Christian workout video titled Blessercize, a real-life found object that offers some much-needed levity to the film’s soundtrack & imagery. Mostly, our bratty non-Christian rebels restrict their resistance to hushed eyerolls, hikes to smoke ditch-weed in the woods, and smuggled copies of The Breeders’ Last Splash on cassette (to be fair, it’s a really good album). There’s a brief moment when they stage a forbidden singalong to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?,” but the less I say about that tragically corny coup the better (it may be my least favorite scene of the year?). As someone who was lucky enough to escape any indoctrination worse than a few (hundred) Catholic masses and a mind-numbing Confirmation course, it’s not my place to say if anything more than those minor, hushed rebellions would have been appropriate to the story told here. I can only report that I was personally much more pleased by the cathartic, disruptive, over-the-top rebellions of Appropriate Behavior, Saved!, and But, I’m a Cheerleader!. This is a well-staged, well-performed, admirably empathetic drama mired in a subject I love to see treated with a snottier attitude unconcerned with those qualities.

-Brandon Ledet

Appropriate Behavior (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

It’s difficult to describe Appropriate Behavior without using titles like Broad City & Obvious Child as reference points, but those comparisons truly do the film a disservice, as it’s much more emotionally satisfying than either of those titles (both of which I like very much). True, Appropriate Behavior is yet another raunchy, sex-obsessed comedy-drama centered on a New York City woman-child struggling to figure her shit out, but there’s something uniquely direct & honest about its approach to this aesthetic that distinguishes it from its peers. Its authenticity might have a lot to do with the overall strength of the writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan, who delivers the material as if she’s lived it before, but what’s really arresting is the crippling, all-too-common sadness that anchors the story. The details of the protagonist’s Shirin’s lifestyle & personality may be specific, but her heartache is universal & familiar.

Shirin is a young, bisexual Brooklynite party girl with a journalism degree & Persian heritage. Not everyone is going to relate to certain aspects of her sex life, such as safe-words, strap-ons, group play and hiding her sexuality from her Iranian-born parents.  However, the film’s central romantic conflict is an about as universal as they come. Appropriate Behavior details the depressing, gradual detangling of two people exiting a long term relationship. The film thankfully doesn’t dwell solely on the couple’s post break-up gloom, but instead adopts a flashback structure that allows it to show the former couple in better times, like in a flirtatious exchange when the first meet where Shirin says, “I find your anger incredibly sexy. I hate so many things too.” When the broken relationship Shirin’s mourning is first detailed it looks too toxic to be worth the heartache. The flashbacks reveal that it was at one time something playful, something worth saving. It allows the film to run through the entire cycle of a romantic tryst from first meeting to fucking to fighting to eventual dissolution.

Although the universal relatability of this cycle is what makes the film affecting, it’s the specificity of Shirin’s world that makes it special. The film’s Brooklyn setting provides a lot of room for lampooning of ludicrous personalities like social justice comedians, Kickstarter gurus, pothead businessmen, and absurdly pretentious performance artists. Shirin’s open, playful sexuality is an invitation into a world of group sex, kink play, and drag queens. Her Persian heritage is a window into both the culture’s familial intimacy & rituals as well as its malignant homophobia. At the center of this Venn diagram is a very relatable Shirin. She calls Brooklyn hipsters out on their nonsense, asking  “What is up with your placid disinterest in everything?” She laughs in the faces of people who take their kink play seriously and finds a way to reconcile her sexuality with her family in a somewhat disheartening “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of equilibrium.  A lot of Shirin’s life goals amount to “a good time”, which is more than understandable for a woman in her twenties.

It’s incredible how much Shirin’s zest for fun shines through when Appropriate Behavior finds her in such a dark time. It’s a familiar balance to anyone who’s experienced true heartbreak: trying to party away the pain like it doesn’t matter, but the superficial hedonism always feeling empty. She pretends like she doesn’t care, but she continuously ends up alone & hurt after the high. No matter your relation to the specifics of Shirin’s background & lifestyle, it’s easy to see yourself in her sadness when she curls up in a ball and says, “I’m going to lie here and forget what it feels like to be loved. Could you please turn off the light?” It’s a sadness that feels like it’s never going to fade, but it always does . . . eventually. Shirin can’t move past it until she gets wrapped up in her own project, a distraction that finally allows her to let go of the past. The thing that saves her? An elaborate fart joke. That’s the exact kind of clash between emotional devastation & goofball irreverence that makes Desiree Akhavan’s debut such a strong, relatable film, even for those worlds apart from her protagonist’s exact circumstances.

-Brandon Ledet