Summer Camp Shame and Self-Loathing

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post | FilmRise

I. “We’re trying to undo the things we did when we were your age.”

In the scene that opens The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her friend Coley (Quinn Shephard) suffer through an elderly youth pastor’s attempt at articulating the shame he imagines they’ll feel as they grow older and look back into the rearview of their lives, glimpsing the old teenage haunts of pre-marital sex and hoppy beverages. The pastor’s thesis—that adulthood will no doubt cast a harsh light on the decisions made in one’s vulnerable youth—isn’t exactly noteworthy or profound. There’s not a grown, tax-paying adult alive who can say they’ve never randomly stumbled upon a fragment of mortifying childhood memory and immediately sandwiched their head with a pillow to keep the other pieces at bay. But beneath the pastor’s seemingly simplistic sermon about the dreaded labor of unlearning past behavior, there is also an undercurrent of stern, fundamentalist warning: Do not stray from the path of the Lord, for although he forgives, he does not forget.

Adventure Mountain, the Christian sleep-away camp I attended in Southern California for three consecutive summers, functioned with the same implicit mission statement regarding shame and the dangers of youthful rebellion. The name’s vague promise of spiritual, PG-rated fun was humorously misguided in its attempt to project an air of early-2000s Disney wholesomeness to parents who either couldn’t afford to send their kids to sports camp, or didn’t want their kids to accidentally stumble upon a godless copy of Harry Potter at the local public library. An “adventure” I remember most vividly was trying to convince a counselor that I hadn’t already cashed in the two showers each of us were allowed that week. Ultimately, our physical hygiene didn’t matter to the college students who inexplicably volunteered their summer breaks to teach snarky 10-year-olds like me how to horseback ride irresponsibly in swim shorts, or brave the rickety water slides that launched our lightweight bodies into shallow pools of brown lake water. Adventure Mountain was not there to wipe the grime from our bodies. No, it was our young, impressionable souls that needed polish. The goal of the camp was simple: to put us in direct contact with the OG Dad of the universe, who I imagined spent His summers making bets with the angels over which of us would be the first to fall prey to poison ivy, the oppressive, lip-splitting heat, or the camp-classic case of unrepentant diarrhea. Crammed in a tent with 12 other boys on the cusp of first pubic hairs and octave drops, I learned to search for faith the same way a child might search for dinosaur bones in the rock garden of a rich friend’s mom: amused by the vastness of my own imagination, but smart enough to recognize the futility of such performances.

You could imagine, then, the distinct horror I felt one year upon discovering the 20-something counselor assigned to keep watch over my tent was both obnoxiously and devastatingly attractive. My counselor was the specific brand of hot I attributed most frequently to the torsos on the front of the fruit-of-the-loom underwear packages I ogled in secret at department stores. His jaw was so irritatingly sharp, I caught myself fantasizing endlessly about how he’d slice firewood in half for us with the fleshy blade of his cheek. I knew there was no going back the moment my 10-year-old brain imagined us vacationing together in a place I heard a schoolmate refer to once as “the Hamptons,” where we could slurp back oysters or whatever it was that fancy people did, while other, less fortunate children rubbed ointment on irritated bug bites and peed themselves during campfire ghost stories. But like any young overachiever, my desire to be a good disciple of the Lord—which was a camp requirement—trumped my desire to further analyze the strange, fuzzy sensation I got when Hot Counselor stretched his arms into an overlapping cross each morning during our “Heavenly Bodies” warm-up routines. Whenever I felt an urge to reach out and trace the bulging blue vein running straight up his arm, I stopped, closed my eyes, and heeded the warnings every boy received the prior summer: that any thoughts we had related to two men touching without shirts on would earn us a one-way ticket to Flames-R-Us. I learned quickly to bury my budding desires deep into the core of me until they were almost as invisible as I felt I was.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning film directed by the great Desiree Akhavan, examines that very type of sexual suppression—the kind that seeps into your pores and convinces you that who you are is in dire need of spiritual intervention. While the film, set in the early ‘90s, functions as a touching and empathetic coming-of-age story about a young woman grappling with the standard growing pains of desire and self-worth, Akhavan doesn’t shy away from the darker, more sinister side effects of rigid, fundamentalist teachings—teachings that convince young queers to house shame in the same space as the heart. And even as Akhavan riddles the film with many humorous pocks of light, the film seems more concerned with fixing a necessary queer gaze on the institutions that proliferate that kind of shame. As such, the film demands we bare witness to the psychological fallouts of conversion therapy—a violent practice that is still legal in 36 states.

II. “If I told you I was unhappy and that I wanted to come home, would you let me?”

Imagine, if you will, the classic zombie figure as a metaphor for queer shame. Picture shame fisting through the dirt prison you made for it, stalking the framework of your home until it stumbles into your bedroom with a mighty groan. Now, picture shame’s rotten teeth sinking into you, forcing you to stare wide-eyed into that gruesome, maggot-slicked mouth. Try and feel that monstrous weight inside your body as it convulses and transforms into the shame you so desperately tried to keep out.

This harrowing, all-consuming shame colors every pastel wall in God’s Promise, the conversion therapy camp Cameron is sent to after her aunt learns of the passionate prom night tongue-kiss Cameron had with Coley in the cramped backseat of a dimly-lit old car. In many ways, God’s Promise is a supersized, more hellish version of Adventure Mountain, precisely because its mission statement is spelled out explicitly from the jump: to rid its disciples of “gender confusion” and “same-sex attraction.” The camp’s refusal to language queerness as identity perpetuates the unfounded notion that conversion is possible, that homosexuality is a fleeting symptom of unrelated trauma. Ruled with an iron thumb by Dr. Lydia Marsh (a sinister Jennifer Ehle), the disciples are forced to undergo absurdly amusing therapy sessions to pinpoint the source of their alleged wickedness, which, for someone like Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), lies in her affinity for the Minnesota Vikings and her close relationship with her father. But while Erin is convinced she can rid herself of “same-sex attraction” through a hilarious “Blessercize” work-out video she trains to every morning, other disciples aren’t so certain.

Watching Erin twist her body to the authoritative encouragement of a thick-permed, Bible-thumping Jillian Michaels-type reminded me of my own physical attempts to harness my attractions and “sports” them into oblivion. At Adventure Mountain, I projected my desires onto an unsteady rock-climbing wall that looked as if it’d been made by theater kids forced to take woodshop at gunpoint. Whenever I climbed to the top, I’d turn my head over my shoulder and look back at the sprawling sea of trees, the other disciples staring enviously below, and the counselors grinning up at me with a pride typically reserved for those who recited pages from the Bible for fun. Memorizing God’s Greatest Hits was not a talent I cultivated in my time at Adventure Mountain, but I took pride in my talent of launching up fake rocks directly over everyone while fantasizing about escape. Each day, we trained our awkward bodies on the jutting plastic stones and 6-foot swimming pools, practiced our underwater handstands with the focus and drive of professional athletes. Looking back, I imagine I pushed my body out of fear, out of wanting to be deemed worthy by whatever spirit kept tabs on all of us. The staff drilled into our heads that God was always watching, and each of us wanted to make a lasting impression. When the second coming arrived to take the best believers among us, we were certain that we’d be judged solely on the strength of our balance.

In Miseducation, the omnipresent judgment of the Lord comes second to the unwavering eye of Dr. Lydia and her “ex-gay” brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.). While I was always certain that I’d return home from the wilderness, even if I chose to disavow the entire enterprise of Christian camp, the disciples of God’s Promise are not guaranteed such safe and easy return. Rather, each of their actions are evaluated with a clinical precision by Dr. Lydia to determine if they have fully recovered from their sinful diagnosis. Emily’s devotion to her work out tapes provides a necessary distraction from the frightening “what if” question that every disciple must reckon with: What if I’m not good enough to go home? Akhavan admirably attempts to interrogate the stakes of that question with empathy and concern, but doesn’t pull punches when depicting the wounds incurred by the threat of permanent familial abandonment. In perhaps the film’s most harrowing scene, Dr. Lydia literally digs her heel into the back of a disciple named Mark (Owen Campbell) once it becomes clear he cannot dispel his rage upon learning his father will not allow him to return home. As the sharp point of her shoe grinds him into the ground, the aspirational image of a heteronormative family bleeds into a myth that can’t be mended or made whole again. Later, Cameron stumbles into the bathroom to find ripe pools of blood gleaming on the surface tiles—the aftermath of estrangement and isolation laid out before her as stark, brutal fact.

While the pristine facade of the nuclear family is undone by the violence of God’s Promise, a more progressive model of family ironically blossoms from the institution’s spiritual herding of so many young queers. Cameron becomes fast friends with two fellow disciples named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck). Together, they form an oasis in direct opposition to the self-loathing God’s Promise aims to keep alive in each of them, by building safe houses in each other. As much as Miseducation is about finding salvation within one’s self, it is also about finding hope and protection in the arms of chosen family. 

III. “I should go back to my own bed now.”

While Miseducation frequently demands its audience reckon with their discomfort as they bear witness to the inhumane practices of God’s Promise, Akhavan balances the darker truths of queer suppression by framing Cameron’s fragile, queer blossoming with remarkable tenderness. Akhavan orchestrates the film’s sex scenes with refreshing subjectivity; each scene rings mortifyingly truthful in their depictions of awkward courtships, light caresses, and final surrenders to carnal desire. Cameron’s first sexual awakening occurs in flashback, carried in by the static lull of an old television set. Cameron and her friend Coley sit feverishly close to each other while watching a scene from Donna Deitch’s seminal 1985 lesbian classic Desert Hearts. Cameron regards the screen with an awestruck sense of discovery. While marginalized communities are often painted with broad, monolithic strokes onscreen in the name of representation, Cameron’s singular experience of witnessing such an explicit depiction of lesbian love provides a refreshing reminder that media made by queer people often allows potential avenues for burgeoning queers to begin naming and articulating themselves. As Cameron bears witness to the screen, her face colors with a mix of embarrassment, surprise, and validation. When she finally reaches out to touch Coley, who consents to the insinuation, it is an honest act of naming and discovery—of finally granting permission to the body to speak its undeniable truth.

But while Cameron’s first experience with Coley signifies freedom, their second on-screen sexual encounter overestimates the privacy of a parked car, and the understanding of a small town community’s conception of queer romance in the ‘90s. Cameron’s nerves were on full display in the prior sex scene; their second engagement finds Cameron carrying herself confidently, leading her partner into every move with the finesse of a trained dance partner. But the moment is short-lived: they’re interrupted by Cameron’s bland prom date—a straight boy she couldn’t finish to the image of if her life depended on it. It’s borderline cruel, how the moment Cameron fits comfortably into her own skin collides with the moment everything comes crumbling apart. Yet the film itself seems to argue that it is better to be free on the inside, even if it means being trapped on the outside. As someone too afraid to touch another person until summer camp became a distant memory, I’d have to agree.

I don’t remember his name, but I remember how it felt to be seen by him as something monstrous. I remember his eyes, how they thinned and darkened, and how his hands, their slender fingers, flexed into a claw when I told him I thought I might be gay. Perhaps the most harmful aspect of Adventure Mountain was that when you finally started to believe you were saved, you were immediately reminded of a million reasons why this could never be the case. Each summer, I came to camp a stronger believer than I was the year before, of both God and of my own potential for goodness. But after every bonfire featuring the same tattooed counselor wailing off-key to the strumming of his own guitar, I would walk back to my tent and stare above at the black sky, trying to form an address. The words would not come. Stray from the rules, the counselor had warned me, and I would be thrown directly into the acoustic jam bonfire by the devil himself. Everything I read from the Bible was to be understood as history—as fact—and the more I read, the more fear hammered into my skull until everything I touched looked like sin.

If Miseducation makes one thing abundantly clear, there’s no easy way to unlearn the shame one has towards their own body. The film’s final sex scene takes the act of dry-humping and turns it into heartbreaking confession. In Cameron and Erin’s sparsely-lit room, a window hangs open, allowing moonlight to barely peek through. Cameron wakes from a wet dream to find Erin sitting on her bed, staring at her intently, and with purpose. The two young women engage in a quick bout of fornication, and while Cameron finishes, Erin stops her before she can reciprocate. While the film celebrates Cameron’s liberation from the shame she’s been prescribed in relation to her body and its desires, Akhavan takes care to acknowledge that this acceptance doesn’t come easily to everyone. Cameron eventually finds the pathway to her body, while Erin further distances herself from her own, creating a chasm deep enough for shame to fit its beastly form into.

IV. “You’re just making it up as you go along.”

What rings most true to me about Miseducation is how it leaves Cameron’s fate ambiguous. As much as the film centers queer discovery and community, the film is careful to acknowledge the harsh reality that queer existence rarely offers tidy conclusions afforded to straight protagonists. As such, Miseducation, in its final moment, becomes not just an origin story for Cameron’s life as a queer woman, but an origin story for displacement and uncertainty, obscuring the next chapter of her life with a bleak yet hopeful scrim. Cameron, Jane, and Adam sit in the back of a stranger’s pick-up truck after hiking away from Dr. Lydia’s camp, with their futures pointing in every possible direction. It’s a reckless kind of freedom, fraught with risks that no amount of self-acceptance could necessarily prevent or overcome. Yet, I believe the beauty of the moment lies in the choice the grey space provides, a choice none of these characters necessarily had before they took to the open road.

Perhaps my own personal desire for a happy ending colors my reading of the film’s final image, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe in the queers of Miseducation, their illegible futures, and the desperate hope they cling to as tightly as they cling to each other. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cling to that same kind of hope, years ago, as I stood at the top of the rock wall for the last time, and wondered if God had put the world there, beneath me, on purpose.