The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the 2018 winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, is a movie that feels like it might have still felt fresh and interesting if it had come out in 1993. That's the year in which the film is set, which is already a curious choice (inherited from Emily M. Danforth's 2012 novel); it adds nothing but the ability to use the 4 Non Blondes single "What's Up?" without it being anachronistic,* and it runs the risk of positioning its social commentary in a strictly historical register, in the dreary way of so many message movie period pieces.

But let's gloss over this part: so it takes place in 1993. Surely, that did not mean that it needed to feel like an indie film from 1993, with all the attendant clunkiness and self-consciousness of that branch of the movie industry in those days (and especially queer indie cinema, a form whose social importance and earnestness was matched in those days only by its artistic haplessness). It's almost like director/co-writer Desiree Akhavan took it upon herself to laboriously re-invent stylistic advances that were discovered, exploited, and abandoned a full generation or more ago. The result is a film that, independently of anything else it gets right or wrong, is at least slightly dismal as an aesthetic object: if it's not the disconcerting handheld camerwork matched with smudgy, murky lighting, it's the confounding story structure, which puts a lot of effort into a system of flashbacks and chronology-blurring editing without first considering whether that system would serve any purpose other than to make the film messy.

It didn't have to be thus - in fact, for the first few minutes of Cameron Post, I was dead certain I was watching a masterpiece. First comes a man (Steven Hauck) speaking over a black screen in the kind, warm, mildly hectoring tones that clearly mark him out as a pastor; then comes the first shot, a close of of teenage hands holding a Bible. The whole first scene that follows is a masterpiece of creating meaning almost entirely through ellipsis: we get a sense of the moral universe in which the film operates without having any tangibly "narrative" to hook onto, and as the pastor's cheerful harangue of the inherent inequity continues, time leaps forward to find one of his parishioners, Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) herself, sneaking into her bedroom with her girlfriend Coley (Quinn Shephard). It's beautifully spare, focusing on storytelling strictly through the observation of behavior, letting us know so much about where Cameron comes from and what she's facing. It doesn't, though, really let us know who Cameron is, and that's where the film is about to have problems. For this very outside-oriented approach, full of looking and not touching, is the best we'll ever get.

The plot, once you've perfectly ironed out the wrinkly structure, is that Cameron and Corey get found out by Cameron's official boyfriend (Dalton Harrod) as they have sex in the back of a car on prom night, and Cameron is sent off to God's Promise, a camp deep in the woods and mountains, and at least several miles from the nearest other signs of human habitation. Here, she will be subjected to gay conversation therapy, under the cheery "ex"-gay Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) and his sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), whose extremely dubious, excessively Freudian psychological theories form the basis for God's Promise's therapy regimen. Cameron bonds with some of the other inmates, recoils from some of the others, and tries to remain deep inside herself while Marsh badgers her.

Fundamentally, then, this is about the pain of being told that who you are as a person is invalid, and struggling to retain that core true self despite the best intentions of adults who have all the power to destroy you. It is a film that is irreducibly about the Inner Self. And that's why it's such a goddamn disaster that these characters don't have inner lives. Cameron least of all: Moretz, an actor I have never especially admired, is good at playing the character as a cornered animal defensive and wary, terrified but aware that showing terror is a surefire way to get eaten on the spot. That is, insofar as we're watching Cameron surviving a horrible ordeal through whatever wits she can scrape up, Moretz is great at doing that, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post is suitably harrowing in depicting it. But I'm at a complete loss to explain how this is interesting. The parts of the film that work would work equally well in any scenario that puts troubled teens in an oppressively sylvan prison; homosexuality is almost entirely window dressing. That hardly seems like it can be what the filmmakers were aiming for, and it's difficult to see that it's anything other than irresponsible storytelling.

And yet. Not once in the 91 minutes of the film did I have any sense of who Cameron is as a human being, not even in the unformed, empty vessel way of a teenager. To some degree, every other character - every other character, including her cheery Stepford robot of an aunt (Kerry Butler) - has some moment where they seem interesting and specific and alive: this is especially true of the taciturn Jane (Sasha Lane), who transparently is just killing time until she attains legal majority and can get the hell out of there with her lesbianism fully intact and her good friend Adam (Forrest Goodluck), the son of a Lakota Christian covert and politician, and who is the source of most of the film's unexpectedly good comic relief. "She's like having your own Disney villain, plus she won't let you jerk off", is a sharp laugh line, and Goodluck nails the delivery by deliberately underplaying it as tired annoyance rather than spitting it out as a wry quip.

But pretty much everybody has some kind of clear backstory and set of desires: Helen (Melanie Ehrlich), who just wants to sing in the church choir; Erin (Emily Skeggs), a sports buff who turned herself in in a fit of spiritual panic; Mark (Owen Campbell), patiently enduring whatever bullshit will make his dad like him; Dane (Christopher Dylan White), who seems in some weird way the most "successfully" converted person at the camp by virtue of openly declaring his impatience and contempt for the whole bothersome affair. The nastiest trick the movie plays is to flatten out each and every one of these characters throughout its running time, especially poor Jane, who becomes less individual and more of a plot device every single time we see here, despite Lane's heroic attempts to keep investing her with presence and personality.

And so we have... what? We have a very earnest story with very good intentions, at least, and I don't want to ignore that; The Miseducation of Cameron Post is, if nothing else (and it is pretty close to nothing else), a film that will certainly help some teenagers feel less lonely in the world. But it is simply not good nor interesting as drama. Cameron is too empty and unknowable, and because we never get a sense of her outside of being a purely reactive being, the film cannot possess a conflict; though Cameron and Marsh have obvious animosity in all their dealings, there's nothing there but a menacing Evil Psychiatrist staring with chilly faux-compassion at a featureless brick wall. Coupled with the clunky staging of the movie with its generic indie film longueurs, and the whole movie is pretty much a purely neutral, unengaging object, whose chief merit is that it has the decency to be fairly short.




*Which is a choice that makes me salty in its own right; as far as I'm concerned, the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have laid all claim to that song for at least another half-decade thanks to its delectable appearance in Season 1 of their late Sense8.