PARK CITY, Utah — LGBTQ cinema is out in force at Sundance Film Festival, with prominent gay characters in high-profile movies including Lizzie, starring Kristen Stewart, The Catcher Was A Spy with Paul Rudd, and Rupert Everett's The Happy Prince.
But the best-received so far by critics has been The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which premiered Monday afternoon to a younger-than-usual crowd at Eccles Theater. The acerbic coming-of-age movie is adapted from Emily M. Danforth's 2012 novel, and stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a lesbian teen who is sent to a gay conversion therapy center after she gets caught having sex with her friend on prom night.
Upon her arrival at the rural God's Promise facility, Cameron is quickly subjected to the staff's jaw-dropping ideas that homosexuality is an illness or a red flag of deeper problems, usually stemming from a bad upbringing.
"Would you let drug addicts throw parades for themselves?" Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) asks sincerely during Cameron's first therapy session. She echoes the hyper-conservative mentality of the Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who claims he used to "struggle with same-sex attraction for years," but now dates a female co-worker (Marin Ireland).
Despite their efforts, the center ultimately ends up having the reverse effect on Cameron, who comes to accept her sexuality as she finds a close-knit gay community among her fellow "disciplines" (led by American Honey's Sasha Lane and The Revenant's Forrest Goodluck).
To prepare for Miseducation, which is seeking distribution, Moretz consulted with survivors of gay conversion therapy, one of whom was in the audience.
"They were so candid with us," Moretz recalled. "Thank you for giving us your story, and really telling us the darkness. And also (sharing) the moments of being able to meet other gay kids like you, where for the first time, you’re realizing you’re not alone."
Although the film is set in the early '90s, Moretz and director Desiree Akhavan noted that gay conversion therapy is still a very real problem: Only nine states have outlawed it, and for minors only. (The New York City Council recently passed a bill banning the practice, for both minors and adults.)
Because of the weighty subject matter, it was important to Akhavan and co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele to inject humor into the script, which mines religious hypocrisy and repressed sexual impulses for laughs.
The film "always had a positivity to it, which is what really struck me when I first read it," Moretz said. "One of our first conversations was about the fact that the reality of the situation is so heavy, but we wanted the interpersonal relationships to be real and fun."