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Thoughtful gay-conversion drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post falls just a little short

For a long time in certain parochial schools and institutions, children who leaned naturally toward left-handedness were made — by coercion or discipline or physical force — to favor their right hands instead. It didn’t truly change their orientation, of course, but it said a lot about the lengths people will go to to change the things they fear or loathe or don’t understand.

The kids in The Miseducation of Cameron Post are all sexual lefties, so to speak, in a world that is determined to bring them over to the “right” side — a service righteously provided by a Christian retreat center called God’s Promise. That’s where Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) lands after her boyfriend catches her rounding third base with her best friend, Coley (Quinn Shephard), in the backseat of a car after the homecoming dance.

It’s 1993, a pre-Wlll & Grace America where AIDS still hangs heavily and mainstreamed pride is not quite yet a twinkle in pop culture’s queer eye. To orphaned Cameron’s God-fearing aunt and caretaker, the center seems like the best chance of rehabilitation for her wayward niece.

Except it’s clear almost immediately that the staff — including the supposedly reformed Reverend Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and his therapist sister Lydia (Jennifer Ehle) — are making it all up as they go along, with the help of highly selective verses from the Good Book and their own half-baked theories.

Working from Emily Danforth’s novel, writer-director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) has crafted a thoughtful if somewhat formless drama about the struggle between human instinct and ideology, populated by finely-drawn characters whose lives would be interesting to watch unfold onscreen even without their “unnatural” leanings. (There is no acknowledged homosexuality at God’s Promise, only misguided SSA, a.k.a. same-sex attraction).

Jane (underused American Honey star Sasha Lane) is a dreadlocked rebel with a prosthetic leg she stashes her secret weed supply in; Native American Adam (the excellent Forrest Goodluck) is completely at home with his “two-spirit” sexuality, even if his newly born-again father isn’t; Erin (Emily Skeggs) thinks if she can somehow care a little less about football and a little more about faith-based aerobics, she’ll learn to love boys too.

Cameron may be the biggest mystery, the cipher at the center. We know she likes denim jackets and good bands (of all the confiscated contraband, she really just wants her Breeders cassette back) — and that her feelings for women are one of the least conflicted things about her. Moretz’s grounded, unshowy performance is consistently compelling, but her story feels unfinished.

The always reliable Ehle (A Quiet Passion, Zero Dark Thirty) is a standout too; she’s quietly terrifying as the soft-voiced therapist with Nurse Ratched tendencies. And there’s real pathos in watching children in pain being forced to channel their feelings —already terribly fraught by learned self-loathing and familial rejection — into misguided group-therapy sessions, G-rated karaoke, and glue-sticky arts & crafts hours.

Once Akhavan has established her moral boundaries though (the teenagers are, nearly to a fault, infinitely more in touch with their own realities than the adults around them), she doesn’t quite seem to know where to take the movie’s dramatic tension, or how to draw out a fuller arc. It’s not so much the Miseducation of Cameron Post we’re left thinking about, but the missed chance to know her more.