Desiree Akhavan’s adaptation of Emily Danforth’s novel is set in early 90s small town America, as Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) or Cam as she’d prefer, has regular bible study. “What feels like fun is actually the enemy closing the noose around your neck”, the teacher warns his teenage students. Against this setting the relationship between Cam and best friend Coli is undercover and dangerous. After the prom photographs taken with their ‘boyfriends’, the girls are caught having sex in the back of a car and we know there will be trouble.
Cam is hauled off by her aunt to God’s Promise, an isolated camp for preaching the gay away. Director Dr Lydia, played by a scary Jennifer Ehle, is also ‘saving’ her brother Rick, a guitar playing reverend, praying and playing away his gay. On offer is ‘Blessercise’, sports, prayer, concerts for Christ, and ‘group therapy’ with an agenda, to shame, straighten the kids out and send them home to their religious homophobic families.
Control is at a premium, as they pass their rooms at night with torchlights to stamp out SSA, Same Sex Attraction and masturbation. Clem’s room-mate struggles with self-loathing and desire, while a very confused Clem is drawn to the ‘bad kids’, Adam and ‘Jane Fonda’, who smoke pot, and go through the motions, giving the counselors what they want to hear, in terms of a psychological take on their sexuality. Given handouts of a submerged iceberg, they are directed to search their unconscious for the triggers of their affliction. Their answers are shown in an amusing cameo of flashbacks to ‘formative traumatic events’, now recast as evils to eradicate. Only a tragic event unravels the impact of the camp’s abusive and misguided endeavours.
It’s a gem of subtle performances, and resonates today in the comedy of Hannah Gadsby, growing up in Tasmania, who explores internalized homophobia in her standup show Nanette.