Today, two films that couldn’t be more tonally different tackle the same despicable trauma.
Note: I’m not suggesting a bit that 2018’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is any kind of remake of 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader, which apparently some folks have done. The surface-level similarities are strong: A raspy-voiced blonde teen is sent against her will to a conversion camp in the 1990s. And the ultimate message is the same — that gay conversion therapy is an insidious evil.
But the older movie takes a campy swipe at the practice, while the newer one goes a considerably more serious route. The results, for me, are mixed in both cases.
Cameron Post, coincidentally, came out the same year as another, even more serious conversion-therapy drama, Boy Erased, starring Lucas Hedges and Nicole Kidman. As admirable as Boy is, it’s just too much misery porn for me. After I watched it, I remember saying that it could have used at least a little humor; as hellish as the torture camp (for that’s what they really are) might have been, it’s only human to wring a laugh or two out of any situation.
Desiree Akhavan, the director and co-writer of Cameron Post, thankfully felt the same way. “It was the humor and the tragedy combined that felt like such a perfect teen story to me,” she told Mic. That’s most true in a scene where Cam (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her band of fellow outcasts start singing along to 4 Non Blonde’s quintessential ’90s jam “What’s Up”:
Seriously, if someone doesn’t like that song (like the vicious head counselor here), they’re a trash person you shouldn’t be around in the first place.
Unlike Boy Erased, we don’t really see the most horrific conversion tactics, just a truly rotten psychologist (Jennifer Ehle) and her try-hard “ex-gay” brother (John Gallagher Jr.) trying to hammer home points about traditional gender roles. It hits hard on the alleged blasphemy of gay life: “What feels like fun is actually the enemy, and that enemy is tightening the noose around your neck,” says one hater. But if the point of the film is to be devastating, and I think it must be, then it doesn’t succeed. It plays it too safe.
Cheerleader doesn’t want to devastate anyone — it just wants to make you laugh and think a little. It’s at once going for a camp aesthetic while simultaneously playing around with romantic-comedy tropes.
Instead of the monstrous evil that Ehle embodies, we get a purely hissable villainess played by Cathy Moriarty in full diva-bitch mode, with RuPaul Andre Charles in boy drag as her chief henchman.
Natasha Lyonne stars as our titular cheerleader, who’s sent by her parents (Mink Stole and Bud Cort) to True Directions because they’re worried that she’s gone lesbian thanks to her enjoyment of tofu and Melissa Etheridge. (Well, one of those might be a sign.) Megan doesn’t think she’s gay, though, so she’s got a blind spot or two to get past. She couldn’t be in a better place to learn: Though True Directions is supposed to be anti-gay, it’s filled to the brim with queer energy and innuendo.
Director Jamie Babbit and screenwriter Brian Wayne Peterson don’t go the full John Waters route and the resulting film is pretty uneven, but Cheerleader generally brings the laughs, thanks mostly to a great cast (Lyonne, Moriarty, RuPaul and Clea DuVall, especially) and to a commitment to poking fun at this quackery.
Now, I know I have friends who’ve suffered through this evil practice, and I would never make light of the hell they’ve gone through, but for me, Cheerleader‘s approach is better. Let’s point out the fucking ridiculousness of thinking people can change an intrinsic part of their very nature, either by praying the gay away or having it beaten out of them.
And once more, for good measure:
Up next: 52 Tuesdays and Tangerine