It’s a toss-up as to which is creepier: the “gay conversion” camp in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” or the haunted boarding school in “Down a Dark Hall.”
This week brings us two movies about independent-minded girls who are sent away for rehabilitation.
In “Down a Dark Hall,” the student in question is a serial troublemaker whose alleged crimes include arson.
In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” the only “crime” committed by the title character is being gay.
Let’s start with “Post,” which is anchored by a strong performance by Chloe Grace Moretz.
The story is set in 1993. Cameron lives with her devout, church-going family in a conservative small town. When she’s caught in the backseat with her girlfriend Coley (Quinn Shephard) on prom night, her horrified family immediately sends her off to a school/conversion therapy camp called “God’s Promise,” where the mission is to wean students of SSA, or Same Sex Attraction.
Students surrender their right to privacy. The administrators will read your mail and decide if they’ll hand it over to you. They can enter your room at night and shine a flashlight on you to make sure you’re not acting on any filthy thoughts. Your personal belongings are subject to search.
“I’m guessing the Breeders don’t sing in the praise of the Lord,” says a teacher as he confiscates a cassette from Cameron.
Cameron bonds with a Native American named Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck) and a rebel who says her name is Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane).
Jennifer Ehle is all strident judgment as Dr. Lydia Marsh, the no-nonsense head of the school. John Gallagher Jr. plays “Rev. Rick,” who claims conversion therapy worked for him, as he no longer suffers from SSA. (We find ourselves hoping the film will give us an epilogue showing Rev. Rick and his husband circa 2018.)
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The real support group at this place is the one formed by a small band of students, who lean on each other and reinforce each other in the face of the small-minded bigotry of the so-called adults in their lives.
Somewhere down the fictional road from the camp in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” sits the enormous and ridiculously ominous-looking boarding school in “Down a Dark Hall,” a well-made but ludicrously overwrought supernatural thriller based on the popular Young Adult novel by the prolific author Lois Duncan (who also penned “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Killing Mr. Griffin.”)
AnnaSophia Robb plays Kit, who has never really gotten over the death of her father when she was very young.
“My dad … died when I was only 9,” says Kit. “He was on his way back from a business trip. The weather was bad so, guess he should have taken the next flight.”
Kit has been acting out at school — ditching classes, getting suspended, committing arson.
“Who gets an F in gym?” she is asked.
“I never go to effin’ gym,” Kit shoots back.
Ah, but that clever tongue won’t prevent Kit’s mother and stepfather from shipping her off to the elite Blackwood Boarding School, which is set in the middle of nowhere and basically looks like a sister property of the Overlook Hotel. Any reasonable human would take one look at the place and turn the car around, stat, but then we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?
Blackwood looks like it could accommodate a thousand students, easily, but only four other girls are joining Kit for what promises to be one fun semester. (Just keeping the candles lit in all the dark hallways and scary rooms would be a full-time task.)
Uma Thurman, employing a fantastically over-the-top Disney cartoon villain voice, is the very scary Madame Duret, who believes her students have special, untapped talents.
Sure enough, one girl suddenly becomes a talented artist; another seems to be channeling a math genius and is labeled “the princess of mathematics”; another instantly blossoms into an accomplished writer — and Kit, who hasn’t played the piano since she was a little girl, becomes an overnight keyboard prodigy.
Why, it’s almost as if these girls are haunted, or possessed, or some such thing.
“Down a Dark Hall” eventually goes Down a Convoluted Tunnel, with some admittedly creepy but also just plain crazy sequences that play like “Eyes Wide Shut” meets “The Shining.” Kit keeps seeing her dead dad — and though we’re supposed to be moved by what eventually transpires between them, it’s more bizarre and chilling than genuinely moving.
And given all the crazy things that happen at Blackwood with this group, one wonders how it got a reputation for being such an elite institution in the first place. Didn’t previous classes come running out of the joint screaming for their lives?
‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’
FilmRise presents a film written and directed by Desiree Akhavan, based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth. No MPAA rating. Running time: 95 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.
‘Down a Dark Hall’
Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Rodrigo Cortés and written by Mike Goldbach and Chris Sparling, based on the novel by Lois Duncan. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic content, terror and violence, some language including a sexual reference, and smoking). Running time: 96 minutes. Opens Friday at the Pickwick in Park Ridge and on demand.