It’s back-to-school time and, not surprisingly, there are a couple of new movies in theaters that deal with the theme of education. One passes assuredly, while the other utterly fails. Of course, neither can hold a candle to the sublime achievement that Bo Burnham’s film EIGHTH GRADE is, and it’s still playing in theaters. However, here’s the report card on these two new ones with similar themes.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST
There are two big releases about the dangers of “gay convergence” therapy due this year. Director Joel Edgerton’s BOY ERASED comes out this fall and boasts the star power of Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Director Desiree Akhavan’s film THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, written with Cecilia Fruegiuele, opened on August 3rd with little fanfare, but it did manage to pull off a surprise win of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter. It stars Chloe Grace Moretz in a subtle and calculating performance that will likely be forgotten come awards-time, but it may be her finest performance to date, this side of “Hit Girl” in 2010’s KICK-ASS.
Moretz plays the title character, and Cameron’s story takes place in Montana, circa 1993. As the film starts, the comely teen is bored with her boyfriend Jamie (Dalton Harrod). They’re all but sleepwalking through the rituals and forced machinations of their high school prom. During a dance with her friend Coley (Quinn Shepherd), it’s clear that Cameron’s romantic leanings lie with her. Soon, they’re trysting in Jamie’s car, when he discovers them, and it turns into a community scandal for Cameron.
Her religious aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler), who has taken over her parenting, completely freaks out and soon is packing Cameron away to a remote gay conversion therapy center called God’s Promise. There, the teen will join other kids with similar stories, and they’ll all be schooled by Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). Rick used to be a homosexual himself and urges them to give it to God’s righteous plan for men to be men and women to be women. Marsh’s motivations aren’t spelled out, and it’s a wise choice for the filmmakers to keep this tough cookie so enigmatic.
Akhavan and Fruegiule’s script surrounds Cameron with a small group of teens, each of whom has their own approach to surviving the camp. Helen (Melanie Ehrlich) earnestly gives the conversion therapy her all, feeling great shame for lusting after a fellow soprano in her church choir back home. Mark (Owen Campbell) is nervous about each move he makes at the camp, fearing his strict father’s instructions to “be more masculine.” Jane (Sasha Lane) is too-cool-for-school and regards all of it in her arms’ length manner. Adam (Forrest Goodluck) sticks close by, breaking the rules where he can. He keeps his hair bushy, much to the irritation of the controlling Marsh, and sneaks away with Jane to smoke marijuana.
Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a Vikings football-obsessed lesbian, tries too hard to fit in, but it’s a strain on her. As soon as she meets Cam, she is all but smitten with her. Erin is boyish and is apparently attracted to the lush feminity of the new girl. Kudos to the filmmakers here for reckoning that Moretz conveys sexuality readily on-camera and running with it. This is not one of the virginal characters Moretz has often played, but a knowing young woman.
In the prom scene in the car with Coley, and in a flashback showing how she first made love with her friend, Cameron is thrilled with the feelings she’s having and doesn’t shirt away from exuding her passions. No shrinking violet is she, and part of the intrigue of the film is in how Cameron will skirt around the conversion exercises to be true to herself. The savvy young lady plays along with the counselors just enough to escape their ire, all the while angling for ways to get out from under their oppressive thumbs.
If anything, Cameron may be too crafty for the good of the story. She seems to be two steps ahead of most everyone throughout, be they student or teacher. Cameron’s wise too, never becoming too chatty or wearing her emotions blatantly on her sleeve. Instead, most everything she does is played close to the vest as she is definitely the smartest person in the room. Moretz seems to relish in taking her time to react to those whom the actress is playing off too. She and Akhavan let Cameron tell the audience with her eyes what she thinks before she speaks, and often her true feelings don’t match her calculating words. It’s particularly useful when the teen goes toe-to-toe with the commanding Marsh. Marsh thinks she’s the master chess player but is almost always outmatched.
Cameron may be a smart cookie, but she’s not arrogant. Instead, the girl exudes empathy to friend and foe alike. After a lustful Erin wiles her way into Cameron’s bed and immediately pulls away after they orgasm together, the more experienced girl doesn’t put her down. Instead, Cameron expresses compassion for the guilty Erin. The same happens after a catastrophe at school shakes the core beliefs of Reverend Rick. Cameron shrewdly points out that he’s as lost as those he’s trying to convert, “making it up as they go along,” but she’s not vicious about it. She comforts him more than he was supposed to for her.
Throughout THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, the story zigs where most would zag. The teens, by and large, aren’t all that lost, and those like Cam and Jane act mature and crafty at every turn. The film never shouts, is deliberately paced, and confidently lobbies for the LGBTQ community without ever sermonizing. If there is any fault in the movie, it’s that Cameron, Jane and a few of the others exhibit too much control in their comings and goings. The film may have missed an opportunity to remind us of the caste system where children don’t have the rights as adults, and could not come and go nearly as smoothly as they do here. Kids gain access to all parts of the complex, Cameron jogs alone everywhere and even exercises with Erin without adult supervision. They feed themselves in the mess hall too. Would they genuinely have that much access and independence?
Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to show that these kids are not a mess and do not need to be trifled with on any level. That’s an understandable choice to show the audience that being gay is far from a sin, but at times, such conviction undercuts the drama. Cameron never seems to be backed into a corner, and her loneliest moments are of the kind that most teens would feel away from home. Cameron walks into the camp knowing exactly who she is and determines rather quickly that no one is going to screw with that awareness. It may not be the best for character arcs, but it sure gives a hearty middle finger to those who try to use Christianity to suffer the children.
DOWN A DARK HALL
Horror movies that place surly teen girls in suspect schools are as old as the genre itself. Rodrigo Cortes’ DOWN A DARK HALL doesn’t even try to live up to classics like Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) or cult classics like Graeme Revell’s THE CRAFT (1996). Hell, it barely can hold a flickering candle to the 1973 TV-movie SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS. What exactly it’s trying to do remains a mystery even after seeing it. Its story is incoherent. Accomplished stars like Uma Thurman, AnnaSophia Robb, and Isabelle Fuhrman have thinly written characters to play. And despite a lot of money being sunk into a ginormous, Gothic mansion setting, most of the film fails to bring any of its interiors to genuinely terrifying life. Instead, the whole movie is shot so darkly, it begs the question if the production was limited in such sets. The less light, the less we see of how little is really there. Sadly, that could be a metaphor for the entire venture.
The film starts, as these films always do, with the heroine being introduced as a misunderstood troublemaker. Kit Gordy (Robb) may have started an errant fire, but she’s no arsonist, as she pleads to the authorities. Still, to avoid jail time, she’s carted off to a unique educational institution that will straighten out her penchant for mischief.
Soon, her parents are driving Kit to this new school and once there, they all discover that it looks like Wayne Manor crossed with Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Kit, with her bright, strawberry blonde hair meets the raven-do’ed Madame Duret (Uma Thurman) and her truculent assistant Mrs. Olonsky (Rebecca Front). Thurman’s headmistress struggles with a haughty, unconvincing European accent throughout, but she’s trying to have fun at least. Thurman’s performance is just this side of camp, and one wonders if she took the role as a chance to stretch or maybe it was the best thing she was offered last year.
Kit also meets the rest of the teaching staff and takes an instant shine to Jules (Noah Silver), Duret’s hunky son. He’s the private school’s music teacher, and before you could play four bars of Rachmaninoff, he’s giving Kit the bedroom eyes as her soon-to-be love interest.
The next day, the rest of the bad girls arrive, and they’re accompanied by more attitude than luggage. Veronica (Victoria Moroles) is all surly lines and furrowed brow, but at least she has some personality. Ashley, Sierra, and Izzy (played respectively by Taylor Russell, Rosie Day, and Fuhrman) seem mostly distinguishable by their hair color. It’s a real shame that the film couldn’t make better use out of Fuhrman. She was incredible in the 2009 horror film ESTHER and deserves shrewder offerings than such an under-baked role as here. Even her character’s name suggests little thought – it’s her own name!
As the girls start their studies, Madame Duret espouses gobbledygook about one’s purpose and claiming your talent, but it’s malarky. Soon, each of the girls will excel in just one of their classes – Izzy shows brilliance in math, Ashley is a whiz at prose, and Kit displays the talent of a piano virtuoso. Not too shabby for a girl who gave it up after only a couple years’ worth of lesson as a child.
The fervor in which the students quickly became A students in their chosen fields is shot with energy and panache by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. His camera swirls around them, tracking left and right as they show off their talents. It’s an apt metaphor for their unbridled enthusiasm at discovering something that gives them purpose, but soon it seems that the script doesn’t really know what to do with these girls. Their characters go from distinguishable by hair color to only identifiable by their individual talents.
Before the reveal as to how these girls suddenly are such prodigies, the film wastes a lot of time chasing down dark hallways and false scares and other distractions. There’s some sort of demon creature haunting the place, but what is he and what’s his motivation? The film could’ve used such time to build characters, but everyone is two-dimensional at best, and we never become genuinely invested in anyone.
Even when students and teachers eat together each night, there’s precious little dialogue that would illuminate any of those in the school. Instead, what little chattiness present is covered by Madame Duret as he jabbers on cryptically about commitment to craft. She sounds like a dull, college pamphlet at times, not someone who should be threatening and terrifying, as the evil woman running this awful place. Thurman barely suggests the menace that one of her eyebrows arching did in her two KILL BILL films. Maybe she realized the script is a dog, no matter how much she was paid to do it.
By the last 30 minutes, director Cortez pulls out all the stops, clogging his frame with scores of ghosts, a hellacious fire, and more blathering by the desperate Duret. Yet dark halls, Gothic mansions, and ghosts milling about do not a horror movie make. They are window dressing. Where’s the cogent, meaningful story? There isn’t one, and unfortunately, this one flunks out quite spectacularly.