You know that feeling when you begin noticing something and can’t stop? It’s especially rewarding when it’s a particular visual motif in a film that doesn’t require multiple detailed scene-by-scene examinations courtesy of a physical or digital home release copy. With that in mind, there’s something about the way Desiree Akhavan uses darkness in her adaptation of Emily Danforth’s novel “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” not just as it pertains to the title character or her sexuality, but also to ideas of acceptance and denial. Scenes of Cameron (Chloë Grace-Moretz) engaging intimately with her friend Coley and one fellow God’s Promise attendee are dimly lit or dark with only a single source of backlighting outlining their figures, naturally to communicate that homosexuality was still thought morally taboo in the early ‘90s and could only effectively exist away from plain sight.
Two particular scenes, however, differently taking advantage of the same technique-as-theme strategy put this motif into a quite different, even painfully existential context. First, one scene around the midpoint shows Cameron hiding in the shrouded space underneath a desk as she calls the aunt who put her in God’s Promise, telling her she’s unhappy, but the call ends with her brutally realizing that there’s no easy escaping, mentally or literally, what’s been a nightmare made manifest. God’s Promise for its mostly malleable youth is an environment of unwavering hidden suffering, something its staff would rather deny or rationalize through blinded logic, but that denial shows the true depths of its damage when the pain is brought to the light, depicted poetically through Cameron navigating a pitch-black corridor only to discover – after turning on the lights – the bloody aftermath of one tortured teen’s attempted self-harm.
Moreover, there’s an intriguingly subtle through-line in Akhavan’s Miseducation relating sight’s physical and non-physical forms, particularly perspective and self-reflection, irrevocably connecting its various darkened scenes aside from aesthetic likeness. God’s Promise director Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) often instructs Adam (Forrest Goodluck) to keep his long hair out of his eyes, insisting he can’t hide from God, one young boy tells Cameron that he and anyone else could tell she was a “dyke” from one look at her and the conversion center’s primary objective is for its youth to think on certain events or facets of their upbringing that ‘drove’ them to same-sex attraction, using an iceberg metaphor in which said reflections represent the troublesome underside masked by the ocean’s surface. But as the film demonstrates, the true underbelly is the emotional abuse Marsh and her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), himself an ex-gay, disguise as legitimate therapy.
That said, Akhavan doesn’t seem to aim for thought-provoking clarity and complexity to her and her film’s naturalist sensibilities. Rather, she embeds herself in the surroundings like the proverbial silent, invisible documentarian, focusing on incisive and stirring emotional truth and intelligence, recognizing that simple observations and well-executed drama can land with as much heft and weight as any heady intellectual pursuits. And come to think of it, the source material at hand doesn’t allow for much room for such intentions. It’s refreshing to see another LGBT youth-centered drama whose characters’ coming-of-age doesn’t revolve around them progressively accepting their sexuality, as this film’s main trio – Cameron, Adam and Jane (Sasha Lane) – already have, and rather realizing they have more agency than is readily apparent given the oppressive circumstances, but there isn’t much else ground to cover beyond the interesting humanization and depth of its antagonists.
None of this is meant as a backhanded jab at a supposed slightness of narrative, as not every film or general dramatic focus need thematic nuance for its various storytelling mechanisms to work. Sometimes, all that’s necessary is an effective depth and awareness of feeling for the requisite gravitas to seem well-earned, and if the bloated three-paragraph introduction here is any indication, Miseducation has plenty of it to spare across exactly an hour and a half of prickling honesty and lightly cathartic humor extracted from helplessness. If anything, 90 minutes, even with Akhavan’s relaxed pacing, often doesn’t feel terribly adequate – a somewhat superficial complaint, certainly, as its structure and narrative flow, themselves marked by tempered introspection, proves if not a rebuttal to the usual peaks and valleys of archetypal drama, then definitely a humble exclamation that tone can influence narrative instead of the reverse.
Rejecting convention to its own degree, it possesses an antagonistic presence with the ironic hubris to believe its religiously subjugated teens have blinded and will effectively blind themselves from their inseparable identity with ideology, and in the process allows its viewers the keen satisfaction of exclaiming enlightened disillusionment along with the protagonists, all while curiously lacking the emphatically righteous storytelling tools and beats similarly themed, bigger budget films often cave to. In fact, it’s rather fascinating watching this particular film rise above many others on the back of subtlety while explicitly exhibiting the consciously malevolent evil of God’s Promise and other conversion therapy centers in a way that presents the respective individuals’ actions and verbiage as understated and somewhat benevolent, yet wholly wicked. It unpretentiously operates with the mindfulness that its audience doesn’t require coddling, yet ultimately, charitably gives them the same gratification as if it had acted accordingly.
As such, there isn’t any mystery as to where it’ll eventually end up, concluding with the oft-copied ‘what now’ long shot eliminating any aspect of certainty to be grasped by either the characters or audience, but Akhavan and her collective of performers make getting there feel interesting. And though the narrative’s progression may occasionally land just this side of overly loose, particularly with regard to the smoothness of Cameron’s development and her kinship with Adam and Jane, it capably leans back on the thrust of its emotional core to infrequently grant the illusion of cohesive progression. And to be frank, while much of indie drama cinema feels overpopulated by sympathetic, but fundamentally flawed protagonists who may or may not overcome what ails them in the face of progress, it’s fairly comforting watching yet another entry in that scene not only not presume its protagonists need fixing, especially as that’d prove fatally ironic in this context, but also that they’re development is allowed to be a little inconspicuous.
Where other films might presuppose their significance without letting the story speak for itself, Akhavan’s exhibits ample confidence in letting its witnesses discern and digest its admittedly apparent importance through low-key execution. In and of itself, such represents the sort of bold assurance other projects relay through relentless ambition. Like the novel that preceded it, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is about as pleasantly, intelligently grounded as it needs to be – performances, storytelling, direction and all. It is the measured breath of sanity that’s just as angry as the next cinematic call to arms with only a modest volume of speech, and that can be tricky to successfully pull off. Inevitably, there’s no hiding when it works, and to near maximum effect.