A Tale of Two Corinthians, or, A Therapy Session Posing as a Review
“Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
“Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:10
Mine was a dusty, moonlit rock tucked behind pine trees, somewhere uphill from the chapel. From my perch I could make out the dirt road snaking past cabins, and with it an exodus of overloud teens, but they couldn’t see me (thankfully) bawling. It was Tuesday night and, per unwritten summer camp custom, that meant it was time to feel life-changing emotions. Sunday through Tuesday a.m. are the pep rally ramp up, Wednesday on is for new beginnings, but this, and only this, was the moment to cry. And I didn’t, usually. I’d been there there too many times, had heard the story of the Prodigal Son in all its clever variations (faux autobiography, historical drama, modern updates featuring dumpster diving drug addicts, at least one involving Avril Lavigne). Crying was for the “troubled” kids; altar calls for the friend-of-a-friend lulled by the promise of sports. I had an apologetics website with a spinning cross GIF and a five song worship playlist in the navbar. I didn’t cry at church camp.
Yet here I was, crying just about as hard as I have in my life, over one crushing realization: I was a monster. An unredeemable fraud. Every action I had ever taken had been based on selfish instinct. Yes, some were the banal sins the other kids were probably repenting of: I’d thought hateful thoughts, I’d lusted in my heart, I’d looked at porn without clearing the history, I’d lied to cover up this-or-that embarrassment. There were shoulder-clutching prayer circles and accountability groups for that typical, forgivable variety. But the truly crushing blow was the sin I had no defense against, the kind no counselor could resolve: the realization that my own goodness was itself a brand of meta-hedonism. I acted nice because I wanted to be seen as nice. I did “the right thing” because I wanted to be the sort of person who did it, either in others’ perception or in my own self estimation or, in my loftiest moments, in the eyes of God. I loved people because I wanted to be loved back, desperately, and I loved Him with the same implicit quid pro quo; what, after all, was righteousness if not the ultimate con I had pulled on the universe? With every layer of external holiness, I was only hiding the charlatan inside; the one aching for approval, hungry to be seen as the best in all things. I could never be truly selfless—could never do anything without that toxic self, somewhere, polluting the equation—and that recognition just about destroyed me.
You might find it amusing, this picture of a 14-year-old bowl cut who had never drank, never cursed, never rounded any bases (despite plenty of swinging), crying his eyes out over what amounts to a linguistic “gotcha!”. With the benefit of hindsight, I do too. He’s a bit of a dweeb. On that rock, though, there was nothing funny about my predicament. It was full-fledged war. Mainstream cinema, if it chose to depict this kid at all, might make him a side character in a riotous coming of age comedy, stage-quivering for fear of eternal damnation. But the truth is, hell had nothing to do with it—it rarely did. The Jesus Freak movement had replaced fire-and-brimstone with love-and-forgiveness long before I attended any retreat. There was nothing stuffy, or fearful, or externally-imposed about what I was experiencing that night. Everyone from my youth pastor to C.S. Lewis (enter: “The Weight Of Glory”) would have happily defeated my little paradox if given a chance. No, I didn’t cry out of fear or oppression; I cried out of a genuine desire to reconcile my own spiritual certainty with the messy vagaries of adolescence. I was trying to cram a hormonal rollercoaster into a steeple. If you self-identified as a Church Kid, you can probably relate.
Rockin’ that church camp tee
This shouldn’t come off as a sob story: I was happy, and lucky, and privileged in all things. I only bring it up to say that I know how it feels to be at war with your own instincts, with those things at your core that you know to be immutable. And I can only imagine how infinitely more painful that battle gets when it isn’t self-inflicted; for those whom the church itself has labelled “perverse” and prayer groups offer no respite. There are plenty of tragic stories in the LGBTQ community with regards to American Christianity; of young people forced to “change” to appease this or that parent, and the myriad abuses that come with it. I mourn them all. But the one I personally empathize with most is one I’ve never seen on screen: the tragedy of actually believing yourself to be fundamentally incorrect, fundamentally broken. To truly want to change something that can’t be changed, not for the benefit of some tight-collared authority figure but for your own formative worldview. Clawing uphill against the inexorable gravity of self; Sisyphus versus the moonlit rock.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)
So perhaps my disappointment with The Miseducation Of Cameron Post (2.5/5) isn’t Desiree Akhavan’s fault. After all, I’m bringing some 20 years of baggage to the table. Set in small town Montana in the early 90’s, the film (based on the eponymous novel by Emily Danforth) tells the story of Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), a Bible-carrying highschooler who is caught having a backseat hook-up with another girl on prom night, and subsequently shipped off to God’s Promise. God’s Promise is a faith-based camp with one stated purpose: convert queer teens back to good, old-fashioned Bible Belt heteronormativity. Or, in the camp’s parlance, to “defend against the temptation of same sex attraction (SSA).” See, according to Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), there’s no such thing as sexual orientation; only temporary, sinful desires that need to be uprooted. Case in point: her brother Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), now the camp’s mustachioed worship leader and (in)effective guidance counselor, once struggled with those same sinful urges. Everything but his facial hair bears witness to her triumph.
At camp, Cameron meets a host of other teenagers in various stages of uprooting. There’s Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane, her first role since she was discovered in my 2016 favorite, American Honey), the pot smoking daughter of former Flower Children. Born on a commune, she and her mother eventually fled into the arms of a born-again conservative—hence, “family values.” With her is Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), the Native American Two-Spirit whose nonbinary gender identity was determined to lend “bad optics” to his father’s political campaign. Sent away more for expedience than any deeply held conviction, neither Jane nor Adam are drinking the Promise Kool-Aid; like Cam, they alternate between can-you-believe-this-shit skepticism, and horror at the psychological trauma inflicted on its more impressionable residents. Impressionable residents include Erin (Emily Skeggs), the Blessercizing roommate who blames her SSA on an overprotective father and intramural sports; Dane (Christopher Dylan White), the designated “troubled” kid who attributes his struggles to familial abuse; and Mark (Owen Campbell), a long-time believer who has worked hard to overcome his effeminate “weaknesses” and is slated to graduate soon.
It’s tempting to compare this to Short Term 12, and not just because of John Gallagher Jr’s counselor role. Both are intimate portraits of bruised adolescence, which contrast slice-of-life quietude with searing melodrama. They even share a few character arcs—watch both back-to-back, then talk to me about certain monologues by departing residents and their eventual denouement. And yet, where Short Term 12 wore its heart on its sleeve, it’s not entirely clear where Cameron Post’s heart lies. Its message is there, of course, written in bold: gay conversion camps are an atrocity, and history rightly condemns them. But heart implies taking our characters at face value, whereas Akhavan wraps them in protective layers.
First is the obvious treatment of religion. From the prim-and-proper Bible study leader to the clueless Reverend Rick, it’s clear that faith is meant to be little more than the butt of the joke—mawkish platitudes about “icebergs” and Jesus ring so hollow, it’s hard to believe even their most cartoonish utterers. Adults pray with eyes poised vapidly to heaven, teens parrot altruisms with cultish zeal, a Christian Rock band is contrasted with 4 Non Blondes and The Breeders, and the whole affair just smacks of satire. Which is entirely justified, of course—in a situation this dire, there’s nowhere to punch but up. It’s not that it’s wrong to satirize American Christianity, or that painting it as a laughable enemy is somehow unfair; it’s just that it’s such an uninteresting angle. That mockery undercuts what might be the most insidious aspect of real-world conversion camps: their ability to sound persuasive, to make their wrongheaded delusions seem righteous. It’s hard to feel the power of a movement when it’s cushioned by a punchline.
Moreover, the overt wrongness isn’t limited to audience perception: our protagonists are granted that same skeptical remove. From opening romance to closing escape, Cameron never seems vulnerable to the dogma being shouted at her. Like Adam and Jane, she is saddened by it, inconvenienced by it, even terrified of it—but there isn’t a moment of doubt. Despite her ostensibly fundamentalist upbringing (possibly complicated by a death in the family, which the book might expound on but the film barely touches), Cam leaves with the same quiet certainty she entered with: there is nothing wrong with who I am, who I choose to love; it is you, the manipulative leaders who couch emotional abuse under the guise of “psychology”, who are wrong. Again, this is a fine choice—the film doesn’t owe me an authentic exploration of faith and its inherent contradictions, even if the precise degree to which it dodges them feels a bit revisionistic. It just strikes me as overly safe, and oddly limiting. How are we meant to explore emotional trauma, if we aren’t privy to the mind of anyone who feels it? Why have me mourn solely through the eyes of characters who think precisely as I do, who decry their peers’ treatment with my own present sensibility? I see what brainwashing looks like; I share your well-earned outrage. Now tell me how it feels inside.
There are glimpses here which hint at what could have been; raw outbursts of feeling from young minds incapable of reconciling the selves they’ve been buttoned into with the selves that keep climbing out. In one particularly stirring scene, a devout character recites 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 from memory, repeating the final sentence till it mutates into a manic mantra, a battle cry. When I am weak, then I am strong. When I am weak, then I am strong. It feels a lot like a thesis, and a heartbreaking one at that: stop posturing, stop fighting, dig deep and find rest. I wish the film had taken that same advice. I wish it had allowed its characters real moments of weakness, of doubt, of honestly not knowing rather than being told what to know. I wish it had chosen vulnerability over validation; had trusted us with truths its characters hadn’t yet learned.
Maybe this brand of storytelling will ultimately help more people. Maybe solidarity against a harmful ideology is more important than properly representing it. God knows the film is resonating: from a Sundance Jury Award to rave reviews across the critical spectrum, the world seems to have latched on to something profound. Good on them, honestly. There’s more than one way to come of age. All I can speak to is what I wanted, what I’m certain this creative team could have delivered had they chosen, and what my 14-year-old self would have desperately needed: a peek into a mind that is actually at war with itself. Not a wink, not an eye-roll, not a rallying cry from act one. I wanted to see someone strain against that rock, earnestly, hopelessly. Feel the weight of all its contradictions, widen their worldview to make room. Then smash it to pieces.