“I don’t have a very good answer for you.”
Uncertainty is the core of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, an always reliable state to hinge a coming-of-age story on. The period is about staring the sheer, terrifying bigness of the world in the eye, and if one gets through it with any maturity you realize that life’s scary less because there’s no answers and more because there’s questions you can’t even grasp. Much of being a graceful adult involves giving people the leeway to stumble through these questions the same as you do.
That’s why the film adaptation of Cameron Post retains the above quote from the book; it’s an emotional high point and a thesis statement sputtered by a man laid low by his stumbling, and in its way it contradicts the title. Cameron learns something valuable in the moment, and that knowledge is what allows her to reach the book/film’s pensive conclusion.
Beyond this moment, though, the movie lost sight of what made the book such an acclaimed and highly readable gem. Part of me understands the slip-up. The book is a long, meandering oddity taking on the charged topic of a gay kid being sent to conversion therapy, and it does it without any histrionics. It isn’t an angry book. It isn’t even a sad book. If anything, it reflects a certain acquiescence to a fucked up aspect of life that I recognize but question the efficacy of even as I practice it: that people will hate you and harm you for no reason, sometimes with the best of intentions, and there’s not much you can do but try to give them a wide berth.
In the book this comes across early as Cameron, who we pick up at twelve years old, meets a miraculously numerous string of queer girls who allow her to explore and pin down her sexuality as she grows into teendom. Also along the way her parents die and her evangelical Aunt Ruth moves to Montana to raise her. The latter gives away why she ends up at conversion therapy (evangelicals and gays don’t mix, particularly in the early ‘90s when this is set), but it also hints at the kind of complicated characters that populate the book. Ruth gives up her life to raise her teenage niece, an unseen middle of the night phone call upturning everything she knows. As much as we expect family to step up in moments like this, not all do. That Ruth does, and that we see her for half the book patiently reestablishing her life while prodding a cranky, troubled teen around, moves her far away from the monster you may imagine would send a kid to a place that teaches them to hate themselves.
How many of us, in our own lives, have encountered a similar scenario? A person or people we love, who we know from day-to-day interactions are fundamentally decent, shows us a side that makes their presence threatening. If you have the fortitude and the means to let them go you do, but how often is it with anger? How often is it sadness? How often is it with regret?
The book’s take on Ruth is similar to how I feel about my own father, who I’ve only spoken to a handful of times in the past several years. Distance is healthy for me, and while I have no doubt it’s the correct choice, there’s a vague, lingering melancholy that the events of our lives led to this understandable but untenable situation.
It’s a strange emotion to describe, the nooks and crannies of it being one of the reasons the book spends half of its 470 pages with Cameron before she’s sent away. Ruth, the people of her small-town Montana home, even Cameron herself spend a lot of time stumbling around big questions, the grace of letting them do that (and letting them take wrong turns) shining through long before our teenage protagonist is able to give it herself.
The movie cuts all of this. We’re at the conversion therapy camp within ten minutes, leaving Ruth a barely mentioned shadow and Cameron’s whole life before only flashes. Without the delicate setup, her time at the camp must establish the strange mood instead of examining it in its raw form. In the book, the people running the camp are the ultimate example of damaged people who have no answers, their deep harm a twisted outpouring of genuine care. In the movie, without all the work to establish this dynamic, they morph as the movie dances around the concept.
Instead of whatever you wish to call the placid melancholy of the book, the movie’s low-key, John Hughes-esque approach comes off as dispassionate about a practice that is anything but low-key in its effects. The deep damage of conversion therapy is well known at this point, and to rage and cry for its victims isn’t an unfounded response. The same could be said in 2012 when the book was published, which is partially why the book’s acquiescence is so startling. It’s a perspective that feels dredged from long years of living in the world, of living with the curious knowledge of being hated and knowing how to put one foot in front of the other anyway. The movie understands that this is the goal but fails to get it across, shortchanging complication for a quick, easily digestible story that, with its odd tone, feels more novel than it is.