Director Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post might be the film of the season
“I was talking to an editor about writing prose. I was trying to figure out my life basically,” says Desiree Akhavan, when I ask her how she first stumbled across a copy of Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Danforth’s novel tells the story of Cameron, a young Montana girl who’s raised by a religious aunt after both her parents die in a tragic car accident. Akhavan’s adaptation of the book focuses largely on the second half of Cameron’s story – the time she spends at ‘God’s Promise’, a gay conversion therapy camp, after being caught having sex with a close female friend in the backseat of her date’s car at the school prom. “This was the first thing I’d read that felt really honest about the experience of being a teen and coming of age. It also happened to be queer and female-driven but that wasn’t the only thing about it that made it really special to me.”
Coerced into signing herself into God’s Promise at her guardian’s direction – a place she now cannot leave without the approval of the centre’s spiritual leaders – Cameron is enrolled in a relentless programme of menial tasks, prayers, ‘blessercize’ aerobics classes and karaoke nights. It’s not too dissimilar from a typical US summer camp – only this camp has mandatory group therapy sessions, one-on-one spiritual counselling and subconscious ‘icebergs’ on which residents must note down all the traumas that have led to their ‘same-sex perversion’.
Before starting work on the film, Akhavan rigorously researched the techniques used in gay conversion centres, wanting in particular to get into the minds of people who run these centres, “most of whom are ex-gays themselves, or identify as ex-gays”. She wanted to understand “the way religious leaders talk to teens and the fear that they instill about every instinct or every sexual impulse they might have”. Was it challenging work? To wade deep into the detail of these evangelical practices, particularly as a queer filmmaker? Akhavan recalls the story of queer rights activist Mathew Shurka who, at the age of 16, was prevented from speaking with his mother and sister for three years despite living under the same roof as them (to prevent further ‘feminising’ influences) and was instructed to take viagra and sleep with women in an attempt to correct his ‘gender confusion’. “It’s shitty subject matter,” she acknowledges, but she was also conscious not to flatten any of the film’s religious figures into two-dimensional, black-and-white villains. “I wanted to make a film which depicted abuse as I knew it,” one where people can do harm “even with the best of intentions.” The way Cameron’s sexuality is constantly undermined, the way her sense of self is completely destabilised by those seeking to ‘fix’ her can be hard to watch, but the perpetrators too have their own demons. “Who wants to see the villains and the victims in these black-and-white stories of evil? As a filmmaker I have a responsibility to live in the nuance of people’s behaviour,” Akhavan says.
Midway through shooting, the unthinkable happened. Despite numerous polls and predictions to the contrary, Donald Trump and his hard-line evangelical running mate, Mike Pence, won the 58th presidential election. “I think the film became shockingly relevant midway through the shoot and none of us were anticipating that,” she says. With Trump headed to the White House, the mood on set darkened considerably. “Everybody was in shock, it felt post-apocalyptic,” she continues, but it also gave the film a renewed sense of urgency. “Our motivation to tell this story in particular was heightened and everyone was grateful to be together.” That mission, the drive to tell a queer story, thoughtfully and with authenticity, is what makes The Miseducation of Cameron Post one of the most compelling queer films of the year. Working with Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck, Akhavan has expertly produced a coming-of-age portrait that’s meaningful, moving, funny and tragic all at once. It’s no wonder the film clinched the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance festival.
It’s an undeniably queer film, but Miseducation also has a broad appeal – it’s about gay conversion therapy, but it’s also about something felt universally by teenagers who are on the cusp of adulthood. Something about themselves isn’t quite right, something’s broken, something needs correcting or improving in some way. It’s about a group of friends who drift together from a shared feeling of otherness. Arriving at God’s Promise, Cameron finally meets kids who are just like her. “She meets other queer kids for the first time in her life,” Akhavan says. “That’s true for most kids in gay conversion therapy. In a lot of ways, it’s a really positive thing to solidify her connection to other gay kids.”
With Miseducation releasing in cinemas this week, and a forthcoming Channel 4 series The Bisexual due for release later this year, I ask Akhavan what drives her to tell such intimate, queer stories. “I never see them on screen, and I think that representation matters. Queer female stories are so rare and so mishandled by men that at this moment, I’d like to see more women being put in a position of authority to tell their own sexual stories.”
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is in cinemas nationwide from September 7, 2018.