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

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

There’s something really satisfying about the trial & error process of songwriting that lends itself well to feel-good cinema. The recent heartfelt indie drama Heats Beat Loud recognizes the joy of building a song from scratch, where confused & frustrated emotions can start in an incoherent haze and then be better understood & emotionally processed once solidified in song. It’s nowhere near the first movie to adopt that songwriting-as-self-therapy concept as foundational thematic ground, but it does feel like part of a recent push to build on that theme by closely following the frustrated stops & starts of the songwriting process while characters figure themselves out. 2016’s Sing Street used that conceit to craft a full-on romantic fantasy piece as a band that barely knows what they’re doing become more confident & cohesive with practice. 2017’s Band Aid is much more brutally honest about the underlying emotional devastation that dives its characters’ need for musical self-therapy, supplanting fantasy with darkly humorous observations about small-time musicianship & romantic crises. Hearts Beat Loud treads water between those two extremes. It flirts with attacking raw nerves with Band Aid’s ruthlessness, but tempers that impulse with Sing Street’s tendency for wish-fulfillment fantasy. The result is still a wholly satisfying movie, even if a less distinct one.

Nick Offerman continues his career-long Grumpy Cat routine as the owner of a failing record store in a small East Coast town. Depressed about the inevitable closing of his shop, his complete lack of romantic & professional prospects, and his daughter’s impending move away to college on the opposite coast, his face only lights up when he dedicates his energy to one obsession: making music, forming a father-daughter band. Hearts Beat Loud occasionally pretends to be an ensemble drama, spreading its POV energies to character crises as wildly varied as middle-age dating anxiety, queer teen romance, senility, addiction, grief, and the list goes on. No one topic is ever explored at any thorough length or depth. That approach can sometimes be admirable, especially whenever same-gender or interracial romance is treated like no big deal, entirely unworthy of comment. For the most part, though, the potency of its emotional beats isn’t reached through any character-based drama as much as through the emotive power of music. Each relationship lightly sketched out in the film could have been more fully developed, but that time is instead dedicated to the cathartic payoff of a climactic concert where the half-formed songs that have been tinkering their way to completion over the entire film are allowed to shine in their now fully-realized glory. It helps that the music is genuinely good and easily carries the emotional weight the deliberately light narrative demands of it.

Low-key, earnest indie dramas like this often survive by the strength of their casts, which is no problem for the Hearts Beat Loud ensemble. Offerman is surrounded by such heavy lifters as Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, American Honey’s Sasha Lane, and impressive newcomer Kiersey Clemons, who sings the film’s original numbers with Lorde-like emotional heft. High-Fidelity packed just as many impressive performers into a romantic drama about a failing record store, though, and that film’s caustic, self-absorbed bitterness sits on the stomach like a bout with food poisoning (not a fan). By contrast, Hearts Beat Loud approaches its own vinyl dude’s midlife crisis with a welcome dose of heartfelt sweetness to balance out the melancholy. It’s not quite as willing to interrogate its own emotional darkness as Band Aid, but its story of somewhat mediocre musicians finding immense relief in the therapeutic joys of songwriting still lands with a thundering thud when it counts: while the music plays. You can feel mediocrity creeping in from the corners of the frame in moments when the film pauses to worship at the almighty altar of Jeff Tweedy or updates the band-excitedly-hearing-their-music-on-the-radio-for-the-first-time trope with coffee shop Spotify listening, but mediocrity is oddly part of its low-key charm. This is a story about normal people finding joy in D.I.Y. song-building, a process that is infectious in its built-in satisfaction, as indicated by the increasing number of recent films in this genre.

-Brandon Ledet