A study published by the Williams Institute this year estimates that in the US almost 700,000 LGBT adults aged 18-59 have received “conversion therapy” in an attempt to “cure” them of homosexuality. Half of them went through it while they were adolescents. Over a third received the treatment from registered health care professionals, the rest from religious advisors.
And this isn’t just an American problem. A huge survey carried out in Britain recently revealed that of 108,000 LGBT people asked, 5 percent had been offered conversion therapy and 2 percent had gone through it. Part of the Tories’ LGBT Action Plan launched this summer is to ban the practice in the UK.
So Desiree Akhavan’s new film, about teenager Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) being sent to a conversion camp after her boyfriend catches her having sex with another young woman, is no history piece, despite being set in 1993. (Although I have to admit to major nostalgia when they sing along to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”)
In fact, given that the clothes and music are back in fashion (when Cameron arrives at the camp they confiscate her Breeders cassette), the only clue that it’s not entirely contemporary is the lack of mobile phones and internet.
God’s Promise is run by Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle, much scarier than when she was in Pride and Prejudice opposite Colin Firth), who believes she “cured” her brother, Rick, who also works at the camp.
The first fellow inmate Cameron meets is Jane Fonda, played by the marvellous Sasha Lane, whose debut screen role was in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. She oozes rebellious charm and smokes home grown cannabis in the woods with Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), another camp misfit.
As Cameron attempts to find a way to get by in the camp, her relationship with her friend Coley flashes through her mind. Their stolen moments when parents are out; touching and experimenting, trying to work out what they feel.
In the camp Cameron is told to examine her inner feelings — what has led her to her SSA (same sex attraction)? Is it that she plays too much sport, leading to gender confusion? Is it her relationship with her parents, long dead? Is it because her faith isn’t strong enough?
With the exceptions of Jane and Adam, most of the teenagers at God’s Promise are really trying to go along with the programme — to learn to hate themselves even more than they already do. The performances are excellent — funny but also heartbreaking, as these earnest and open young people are told again and again to reject what they feel.
But the film doesn’t simply portray the adults as evil (though there is something of the Nurse Ratched about Lydia). They really believe this shit, and think they are helping. In fact, of course, their behaviour is utterly destructive.
This is a low key, heartfelt film, which builds a sense of anger at the sickening treatment these teenagers must endure. Most importantly, it gives young people due respect.