‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ gives a whole new meaning to bad education

Gay conversion school isn’t heavy on laughs, but Desiree Akhavan makes sure teenage energy and joy aren’t dampened

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is set in the early 1990s. This comedy drama revolves around a high-school student sent to a Christian gay conversion camp in rural Montana after she’s caught in a relationship with another girl.

I’d like to think society has moved on in its attitudes towards sexual diversity since its timeframe, but I fear the film may still have some minds to convert with its celebration of tolerance. But The Miseducation of Cameron Post does more than a deliver a message: this is a lovely, richly shaded portrait of adolescence in all its shifting moods, shot through with a melancholy sweetness and sly, intoxicating humour.

Chloë Grace Moretz plays Cameron, a girl in her mid-teens living with Ruth, her devout, well-meaning aunt who has been caring for Cameron since the death of her parents. In an extended opening sequence we see Cameron prepare for that staple of teen rituals, the high school prom, her date a handsome lad called Jamie. The scenes flit by with little dialogue, director Desiree Akhavan staging them as a kind of blurry reverie. But the look of awkward discomfort on Cameron’s face as she poses for the camera hints that Jamie isn’t quite the dream date he appears.

In fact, we know that Cameron is seeing her friend Coley (Quinn Shephard), and when the two girls are discovered making out in the back of car, Ruth sends Cameron off to God’s Promise, a residential school in a remote woodland where gay and lesbian kids are supposed to be purged of their urges.

It’s a pretty grim basis for any educational establishment, and Akhavan, adapting a novel by Emily M Danforth, never shies from the uncomfortable realities of life at God’s Promise.

A programme of reconditioning has been put in place, overseen and micromanaged by the headteacher Lydia. Played with haughty precision by Jennifer Ehle, Lydia is a stern disciplinarian who uses the intimacy of her therapy sessions with the kids to advance her anti-gay agenda: she is an icy dogmatist, the closest thing this otherwise generous film has to a villain, and for the students in her care, her influence is appalling.

An impromptu singalong in the school canteen to 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up? constitutes a pretty forthright act of teenage rebellion

Adolescents are already confused enough without attempts like hers to mess with their heads, and Akhavan leaves us in no doubt about its impact on the kids at God’s Promise, especially through the near-tragic case of a vulnerable pupil.

But the film is also about the resilience that teenagers forge in the face of crummy circumstances. “What feels like fun is actually the enemy,” a religious elder informs youngsters about the temptations of youth (he’s really talking about sex).

Well, when you’re oppressed by adults with views like that, the best way you can resist is by having fun: here an impromptu singalong in the school canteen to 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 hit What’s Up?, performed by Cameron with a broom for a microphone, constitutes a pretty forthright act of teenage rebellion, and Cameron is duly punished by Lydia.

Teaming up with fellow residents, the improbably named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), Cameron’s questioning of the school’s authority grows more strident. But that sense of fun remains throughout, with the film attuned to the heady kicks and exuberance of teenage life as well as any John Hughes picture. It’s an impressively assured second feature from Akhavan (whose debut was the 2015 comedy Appropriate Behavior), with a winning central turn by Moretz.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is in cinemas on September 7.

See next week’s magazine for an interview with Chloë Grace Moretz.