When art gets its hooks in you

Photo of the main character and her two best friends from the movie The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

The other night, at the suggestion of my brother-in-law in Ottawa, perhaps the best recommender of music, books, and movies that I know, I watched the 2018 film The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Based on the 2012 novel of the same name, by Emily M. Danforth, the film is quite simply perfect. Beautifully and naturally acted, heartbreaking and funny, tender and brutal, this story of a girl sent away for gay conversion therapy has stayed with me for days. Small wonder it picked up the Grand Jury Prize for US Drama, the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival, when it was released.

When you watch a movie that good, you’re reminded of the thing that certain filmmakers, authors, and other artists do best: they plunge you—the viewer, the reader—into a world that’s both familiar (so that the material rings true) and unsettling (so that you learn and feel something fresh).

After digging around on Google, I learned that Danforth’s novel somewhat predictably raised the ire of the intolerant, leading the Cape Henlopen School Board, in Delaware, to remove the book from a summer reading list for advanced students. In an impassioned and cogently reasoned letter to school board members in 2014, Danforth posed challenging questions about why her book in particular was whisked off the list.

In her letter, Danforth also said she was proud to see her book join the legions of novels “that have been banned and challenged and censored throughout history—many of them among my all time favorites, the very books that shaped me as a reader, a writer, and a person.”

I’ve always felt that the best art, the stuff that really fastens its hooks in you, is not easy or mild. It combines the soothing and the disturbing, the ordinary and the edgy. It draws you in and at the same time shoves you around a little. It’s like getting a massage: your enjoyment comes from the pleasurable, painful dig of gifted fingers.

It’s that push-pull between what’s comfortable and what’s unsettling that keeps me on the sofa, staring at the TV screen long after the final credits have rolled, wanting a movie’s spell to last forever.

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