Tribeca 2018: ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ and ‘Tully’

The Miseducation of Cameron Post explores a teenager's struggles at a gay conversion therapy camp, and Tully a suburban wife's depression after having a third child. Both aim at empathy.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Desiree Akhavan
10 Aug 2018 (US)
Jason Reitman
4 May 2018 (US)

In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the titular protagonist (Chloe Grace Moretz) is sent by her legal guardian to a gay conversion therapy camp after Cameron is caught having a sexual experience with her high school girlfriend. At the camp—named “Gods Promise” to loudly highlight the film’s foremost “miseducator”— Cameron befriends two well-educated defectors, Adam (Forrest Goodluck) and Jane (Sasha Lane), who have mastered half-hearted, repetitive responses to the program’s ridiculous exercises. Soon, “God’s Promise” is viewed as a parody through the trio’s wry, skeptically bemused lens.

For anyone who emotionally yearns for an “I’m with you” against religious oppression, Miseducation‘s oft used juxtapositional structure between the camp’s misfit trio and its darkly comedic instructors will prove to be valuable comfort cinema. Perhaps the highlight of the camp’s nonsensical efforts is Reverend Rick’s (John Gallagher Jr. of “Newsroom”) sermon about his own sex conversion journey: a comically oblivious story about how “God” found Rick at a gay bar and sent two disciples (employees from a gay conversion camp) to take him home. Later, Adam, Jan, and Cameron smoke a joint on a hiking path and tear into the tale, in what proves to be a naturalistic “coming of age” moment where kids affirm their supervising adults are more clueless than they are.

But this clearly one-sided approach also undercuts a broader coming of age narrative about Cameron’s personal growth. To her credit, Moretz’s physical performance effectively captures teenage emotional angst. Moretz capably tows the line between a teenager’s ginger need for acceptance and her probing cynicism—she bundles up and murmurs, while her eyes surgically dissect the camp’s scam. But while Akhavan judiciously focuses on Cameron’s pained reception of being sent to camp, she is never in doubt about her sexuality or religious views (another disciple, “Mark” played by Owen Campbell, undergoes this torment and warrants even more time on the screen). Ultimately, Cameron’s unchallenged adherence to Adam and Jane’s insistence to stay removed leaves little to the imagination about whether she will convert, or her how she will finally respond to the camp.

Midway through the film, Cameron confesses to Dr. Lydia Davis (Jennifer Ehle, a typically villainous headmaster) that she was an all-state runner, which of course Davis immediately flips as another example of a struggle against her Christianity. But Akhavan’s agenda is also dismissive of Cameron by not going deeper into the psychology of a student-athlete who is being deprived of being one of the best runners in her state.If the film took the time to build Cameron’s stakes—a college scholarship, her desire to compete and win—her “miseducation” would have entailed a greater sense of emotional suspense at the prospect of valuable time lost. Instead, Cameron is merely a vessel begrudgingly visiting an oppressive institution rather than exuding a palpable desperation to escape it.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post rating: 6

Escape is even less of a possibility in Tully, Jason Reitman’s recent opus on women’s painstaking interactions with pregnancy. Here, Reitman reunites with Charlize Theron who plays “Marlo”, a former wild child in her 20s who is now a downhearted 40 year old stuck deep in nuclear family suburban milieu, with a third kid on the way. A life outside of exhausting maternal monotony appears hopeless.

The film’s most accomplished if not memorable portion is its first 30 minutes on Marlo’s final days of her pregnancy and subsequent postpartum depression, which veers close to a stirring cinéma vérité save for a sentimentalist piano score to dilute Marlo’s agony at the behest of the film’s agenda to remain a soft comedy. Theron wears the physical toils, inescapable depression, and color-sucking fatigue of childbirth so naturally, the first act of Tully may have worked even better as a silent film. Both Marlo and her husband Drew’s (Ron Livingston) face at the child’s birth is one of the finest cinematic portraits of reprisal against the creed that babies, without any qualification, are “gods little miracles”.

But Tully’s dialogue is quite good nonetheless, as Theron responds to everyone’s suffocatingly robotic over enthusiasm for her pregnancy with naturalistic grimaces, muttering, and dry sarcasm which doubles as a “beg for help” for anyone to “keep it real” and just admit that pregnancy at 40 with a third child is, first and foremost, a depressing burden.

Marlo is a sharply written character whose naturalistic wry wit was penned by screenwriter Diablo Cody. A small sampling of delightfully dark comedic scenes include a hospital nurse who repeatedly demands that Marlo urinate more to empty her bladder, to which Marlo snaps back “what do you want, a golden shower?” When a kindergarten principal continually dodges Marlo’s son Jonah’s possible autism by calling it “quirky”, the righteously unnerved Marlo whips out “do I have a kid, or a ukulele?” Perhaps the finest dark comedic note is Theron’s wary bemusement at an elderly woman who watches disapprovingly as she elects to purchase decaffeinated coffee while still pregnant, even after having been thoroughly warned about “traces of caffeine” in the beverage. It’s a wink at the audience; a sad, dry, and tender “I’m with you” to the perennially judged mothers of the world.

And yet, despite Marlo’s heroically dark comedic portrayal of the understated daily tedium of motherhood, Cody and Reitman do not afford her character the same robust treatment they did young adult fiction writer “Mavis” in Young Adult, also starring Theron. Young Adult presented a full character study of a monstrously sardonic, misanthropic mid-30s single artist with no children in a half-hearted pursuit of a suburban life. Suffice to say, as comfortable as a nuclear family life with the town stud (Patrick Wilson) may seem, Mavis is challenged to own the realization that perhaps a slightly less boozy and nomadic existence of motels and book tours may be for her.

Mavis’s struggle is alive and representative of the ongoing battle adults must endure to own their individual personalities against societal pressures. The same cannot be said for Tully, which is not so much about Marlo’s struggle for individuality as to accept she forsook it so long ago. But where to go from there? Just why should “Marlo” be remembered as a unique cinematic character?

Reitman’s uneven answer is through Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny hired by Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) to care for the newborn so that Marlo can get some much needed sleep. More than just an effervescent Gen-Mil version of Mary Poppins for the privileged, Tully is also a nostalgic window into Marlo’s carefree 20s. She not only cares for Mya, but cleans, makes cupcakes, and helps restore Marlo’s youthfulness by egging her on to love herself more.

And so Marlo starts to come to life. “I can see color, again,” she says with a dry genuineness which is more heartbreaking than comforting. Marlo begins to take pleasure in doing little things which others would take for granted, if not bemoan. She roasts a chicken for dinner, and pays extra attention to Jonah as he starts a new school. She sings Karaoke at a birthday party, and begins to wear makeup for her exhausted and still mostly disinterested husband. She makes Sangria. In a word, she’s a mother with a little bit more freedom, at least until her maternity leave ends and her human resources job begins.

What Tully does not do is reveal anything about Marlo’s unique interests or lingering life goals which would elevate her from more than an effective representation of a slightly less burdened mom. When Marlo does finally rebel against following the rules, it is through a rapid fire and overly plot-twister of a third act which says little of her character save that as a mom, she’s entitled to a totally irrational moment.

Tully is a remarkable film for its admirable effort at portraying a stripped down, raw version of the mother wish fulfillment genre. But the film’s insistence on archetypes, which uneasily concede to society’s pressures, rather than resolutely fight for some individuality in spite of them, may ironically lend to a longing to revisit Mavis instead of Marlo. But ideally, audiences will review both films back to back.

Tully rating: 7