Every kid at the gay conversion therapy center must draw an iceberg. If they can fill in the huge, below-water section of the iceberg with reasons for their homosexual activity, they will better understand how they could have slipped from the straight path.
And then they will be cured.
In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” the iceberg is a running joke, born of despair. The teenagers trapped in the therapy center try to think of gay-causing explanations they can write on their icebergs — a childhood trauma? an overbearing parent? — and sometimes borrow other kids’ scrawlings (how well I remember being a Catholic schoolboy and trying to come up with two or three credible transgressions I could offer up in the confessional every week, so I would sound believably sinful).
You have to wonder whether the organizers of the God’s Promise school have really thought through this iceberg metaphor. Are the teenagers the icebergs, or are they the ships steaming toward a collision?
Such programs are not known for clear thinking, and “Miseducation”— a Sundance winner from earlier this year — is devastating in its depiction of the fictional God’s Promise. But what makes this film so memorable is the rounded view it takes toward its cast of characters, even the religious fanatics who run the place.
Our title character, played by Chloë Grace Moretz (of “Kick Ass” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” fame), gets packed off to God’s Promise after making out with a girl on prom night, 1993. Luckily, she falls in with a couple of inmates who share a sardonic view about all this: the one-legged Jane Fonda — that’s her name, although there’s no follow-up to the gag — played by “American Honey” marvel Sasha Lane, and Native American Adam (the sneakily funny Forrest Goodluck, from “The Revenant”).
The place has its share of true believers, including Cameron’s slightly spooky roommate (the convincingly odd Emily Skeggs), who exercise to Christian rock songs and air their guilt in group therapy.
But nobody really belongs at God’s Promise, except maybe fearsome head doctor Lydia Marsh, played with crocodile focus by Jennifer Ehle. Even Lydia’s cheerleading brother, Rev. Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), betrays signs that his own happy-face conversion from a gay adolescence has perhaps not entirely gelled.
Gallagher’s deft performance is typical of this movie’s approach: Director Desiree Akhavan, adapting (with co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele) Emily Danforth’s young adult 2012 novel, resists the temptation to mock the more ludicrous aspects of this intrinsically ludicrous situation.
Nor does she turn her reflective heroine into a proactive, fist-pumping warrior. Instead, she allows us to perceive the iceberg that sits beneath the surface of the story, the uncertainties and fears and anger.
Akhavan here fulfills the promise of her 2014 film “Appropriate Behavior,” demonstrating a gentle but passionate touch and a real gift with performers. The young actors here — and we should add Owen Campbell, as a sincere Christian boy — have an offhand, intimate style of ensemble playing.
A few conventional story beats in the last 20 minutes can’t diminish this achievement, nor cloud the fact that Akhavan has executed a quietly complete takedown of an ignorant practice.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” (3½ stars)
A great ensemble of young actors and a quietly devastating approach distinguish director Desiree Akhavan’s film about a gay conversion therapy center. The film is remarkably even-tempered, allowing the audience to see the crackpot therapy for what it is. Starring Chloe Grace Moretz.
Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for language, nudity
Opening Friday: SIFF Cinema Uptown