The Screening Room | 'Miseducation' proves a powerful call to action

The Screening Room | 'Miseducation' proves a powerful call to action

Based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, Desiree Akhavan's "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" takes a subtle approach to a complex problem, namely coming to terms with your sexual identity.

Films about teens rebelling against social norms and ignorant adults are nothing new, yet this movie pulls off the rare feat of creating authentic, fully realized characters without being condescending to them. While much of this may be attributed to the screenplay by Cecilia Frugiuele and Akhavan, kudos must be given to the young cast the director has assembled, who seem to have a very personal connection to the people they've been charged with bringing to life.

Much like her peers, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) is doing her best to navigate her teen years, trying to find a comfortable place to just be. The deck is stacked against her, as her parents died when she was young, and while her guardians mean well, they simply don't understand her, especially when she's discovered making out with another girl in the backseat of a car. Their response is to ask what they did wrong, pray to God for guidance and then send her to a gay conversion therapy center.

Needless to say, she meets others who are equally misunderstood and confused. Because of their natural suspicious nature, it takes a while before any of her peers let her in, but eventually, she becomes close to Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck). Both are naturally resentful toward their parents for having sent them there, as well as for being browbeaten by counselors whose approach is to shame these teens in a futile attempt to change them.

The Rev. Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and his sister Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) are the ones who run the place, the former supposedly having been converted by the latter. They refer to their charges as "new disciples," warn them that "there's no hiding from God," and have any music or books deemed "unacceptable" confiscated.

Equally offensive is an activity in which they have to draw an iceberg, the tip representing their "aberrant behavior," with what floats beneath the surface being the cause of their homosexuality. Forced to go back and misidentify common occurrences as the root of their "troubles," this is just one of many ways these young people are brainwashed, their sense of self-esteem crushed at every turn.

The film ultimately plays out like a modest version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," as the teens slowly realize that quiet resistance is their best defense, until an opportunity arrives for each to take a personal stand. Unfortunately, a tragedy has to take place in order to provide the catalyst for this, a shocking act that serves as a metaphor for their worst nightmare.

What sticks with you after the credits roll are the examples of strength and resilience embodied by these characters. Like most inquiring young minds, they're able to see through a pack of lies when they're put in front of them.

In refusing to be cowed by the self-righteous, they display the best sort of independence — that which is earned, not simply given. Grace Moretz, Lane, Goodluck and their co-stars embody this spirit perfectly, creating modest, unassuming role models in the process.

There's a strong current of hope that runs through "Miseducation," and while this proves to be a powerful testament to those who've had to walk in Cameron's shoes, it's also a clarion call for action. A playbook for how to contend with narrow-minded bullies, this film couldn't be more timely.

'The Miseducation of Cameron Post' (★★★ 1/2 out of four)

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Dylan White, Owen Campbell and Melanie Ehrlich.

Directed by Desiree Akhavan; produced by Michael B. Clark and Cecilia Frugiuele; screenplay by Frugiuele and Akhavan, bbased on the novel by Emily Danforth.

A FilmRise release. 91 minutes. Not Rated. At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Nun" falls short of Blumhouse standard. (★★ out of four). As far as Blumhouse Films' "Conjuring" series is concerned, the five movies that make us this franchise have been like money in the bank.

A surprise hit in 2013, "The Conjuring" focused on real-life paranormal detectives Ed and Lorraine Warren dealing with a particularly nasty haunting. On a modest $20 million budget, it brought in over $300 million at the global box office, meaning more adventures of the Warrens were obviously going to make it to the big screen. Fortunately, they had a long history of investigating things that go bump in the dark, some of them simply begging for their own feature.

The creepiest doll in the history of dolldom, "Annabelle," was the central point of two movies, while the worst thing to ever wear a habit, "The Nun," is the current "Conjuring" entry in theaters, a certified hit right out of the gate, clearing over $131 internationally during its first three days of release.

The good thing about this franchise is that instead of making quick knock-off sequels, the producers have delivered well-made, intelligent movies that successfully mine and expand on the series' mythology. Unfortunately, that's not the case where "The Nun" is concerned, a muddled movie both narratively and visually that concentrates on atmosphere over coherency. Frustrating and tedious, this winds up being a wasted opportunity for a character rich in potential.

Taking place in the early 1950's, the film opens with a gruesome suicide of a nun outside a massive abbey in Romania. Father Burke (Demian Bichir), a priest with, I think, experience where demon hunting is concerned, and a young woman, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), are deputized by the Vatican to go investigate.

Upon arriving in the dark, dank country, these two look up Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a delivery man who had the unfortunate luck of finding the deceased nun, who happened to just be hanging around getting her eyes plucked out by crows.

He warns Burke and Irene that the abbey is rumored to be haunted, and they get proof of that soon enough. They see various nuns that turn out to be ghosts and learn that they used to be the inhabitants of this cloister, sent to pray over a gateway to Hell that has been opened. Their vigilance has held the demons, who'd like to cross over, at bay for years, but one who's more powerful than ever before is knocking at the gate and won't be denied.

This exposition is doled out at an agonizingly slow pace, and a degree of tedium starts to set in as we're left with nothing to do but drink in the atmosphere — which, arresting as it is, is no substitute for an interesting story compellingly told. Very little in the way of background is provided for Burke, which, rather than render him a man of mystery, makes him a cypher.

And while there is an interesting development or two where Irene is concerned, overall, the character is given short shrift. To be sure, she proves resourceful in the end, but there's a gulf between her and the audience that's never bridged.

Director Corin Hardy does succeed in delivering a rousing climax and two or three very effective jump scares, but watching this movie is like looking at something through dirty dishwater. Yes, I understand that the location has no electric lights, but there's a way of lighting a scene for clarity while maintaining an oppressive mood.

In the end, "The Nun" is far more frustrating than frightening, an exercise in "what might have been" rather than horror, and the first "Conjuring" film in which I felt duped and taken advantage of. With the success of this feature, I'm sure a sequel will be made that will hopefully fill in the gaps left here and perhaps employ a talented cinematographer.

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