The Miseducation of Cameron Post made a major splash at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Based on the novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, the conversion therapy drama won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, the fest’s highest honor and a noted Oscar precursor. Previous winners like Whiplash, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone, and Precious have gone on to be Academy Awards players, each of them earning nominations for Best Picture.
But since Cameron Post earned Sundance’s top prize in January, responses have been muted. Critical responses were positive overall, but some (male) reviewers dismissed the film as feeling like it would be “right at home on Lifetime two decades ago” or “drifting into an Afterschool Special timidity.”
Cameron Post currently holds an 84 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.
In conversation with INTO, writer/director Desiree Akhavan said that she has faced a double standard as a bisexual woman of color releasing a film about a lesbian protagonist, played by Chlöe Grace Moretz (Kick Ass, Carrie). While gay movies like The Imitation Game and Love, Simon play in wide release, just one movie with a queer female lead has ever screened in more than 1,500 theaters: Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King.
After debuting in limited release on Aug. 3, Cameron Post is currently playing in just 25 theaters. Distributor FilmRise will be rolling the film out to additional cities in the coming weeks. It is scheduled to screen in around 250 cities total.
Akhavan addressed the challenges facing queer women filmmakers in a conversation at Los Angeles’ Mama Shelter hotel. The 34-year-old also spoke about her unique approach to adapting a novel about a discredited “gay cure” treatment likened to torture. While Akhavan said she never intended to make a conversion therapy movie, she claimed the source material resonated with her own experience of seeking treatment for an eating disorder.
INTO: As a queer woman, what attracted you to telling your story about conversion therapy, especially in our current political climate?
Desiree Akhavan: Well, it wasn’t our current political climate when I first started making this film. I just loved the book. I wasn’t thinking about gay conversion therapy. I was thinking about an honest depiction of being a teenager, period.
To me, the book really captured what it was to be a teenager and then on top of that, it was a female sexual-coming-of-age story, which really excited me. It was honest, and it wasn’t black and white. It wasn’t saying these are the villains, these are the victims. It was a nuanced portrayal throughout the book, so I just wanted to adapt this book since I first read it in 2012 and then when I was touring the press circuit in 2015 with my first movie [Appropriate Behavior], my writing partner said, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “Read this book. I’d like to do it as a third or fourth feature. Not next, but just read it and we’ll talk about what we can do to get to the next level.”
Because to me, the book was so ambitious. The tone was so nuanced, the writing was pitch perfect. I felt like, “Oh god, I’m not mature enough to do this and I need to grow into it.” And then she read it and loved it and started getting the rights and she said, “No, this is what we’re doing next.”
So after she made me do it, I was like “OK, I’ll do it.”
What about the book’s approach to being a teenager, especially a queer teenager, did you find so revolutionary that you said, “I need to tell this story?”
It was honest and unlike anything I’d seen. It reminded me of John Hughes films — that kind of rough grittiness that was that moment in life when you realized the adults around you don’t know what the fuck they’re doing and everyone’s blindly moving forward and there’s no black or white, right or wrong. Everything’s just kind of in the gray. That’s the thing about being a teenager. It’s like a hodgepodge. The highest stakes and the most banal banality. But also to me, it was a metaphor for what it was to come of age, that no matter who you are, even if you’re straight, whatever your ethnicity is, that you feel diseased. There’s something about you that’s wrong and you need to exorcise yourself from it.
That’s being a teenager is to me, no matter what your circumstances. And that’s what this book did. It dramatized that and also it was really funny and it didn’t take itself too seriously, even though it was about such serious subject matter.
I think one of my favorite moments in the movie — and something I never thought about before — is when one of the characters says all teenagers feel that they’re disgusting.
Yeah, “Jane Fonda.”
That must be the thing that makes teenagers so vulnerable to something like conversion therapy. People prey on that. But the movie expresses so much empathy for all of these characters, even the people that should be the villains. Jennifer Ehle gave such a beautiful performance. How did you as a filmmaker approach wanting to see the humanity in these people but not forgive them at the same time?
I just tried to be as honest as possible and see it from everyone’s point of view. My co-writer and I did a pass for each character’s perspective and we tried to paint fully-dimensional characters so you understood. I mean, Jennifer and I discussed Lydia and to us, Lydia was someone who devoted her life to children and to changing their lives for the better, and you can’t fault someone whose intentions are good, even though their actions are reprehensible.
In terms of subjectivity, we the audience see so much of Cameron Post’s journey through Chloë Moretz’s performance. You just see it on her face. How did you, as a filmmaker, strive to express that in non-verbal ways? I imagine that must be such a challenge to tell the audience things that aren’t said out loud — just through gesture.
Cameron was always an introverted character. A lot of the book lived in voiceover — like, her narration. We knew we didn’t want to employ that technique in the film and luckily we cast an actress who can really live in close-up like Chloë knows how to deliver a scene without dialogue. She’s very good at that, as is Sasha [Lane] and that ended up dictating a lot of the way we shot it. It was Sara Shaw, my editor, who found a way to reorder the scenes so that Cameron’s narrative flows. I think before she was too opaque — too much of a closed book. With Sara’s work, she was able to put the right scenes juxtaposing each other to tell her story. It’s crafted to tell you what’s happening with Cameron’s mind because the order was completely different in the script, but the way Sara put it together, it was unraveling and each scene revealed something new.
After reading the book and being inspired by it, you also reached out to conversion therapy survivors. How did that change your approach to the material to hear the real-life stories of people who had gone through it — because the work itself is a book of fiction?
Talking to [conversion therapy activist] Mathew Shurka made it feel very close to home. It didn’t change the script, but I was really pleased that a lot that we had put into the script was true to his experience. It confirmed the research my writing partner and I had done. The cannibal scene on the grass where Jennifer Ehle is saying you’re not in love with her, you want to take it to yourself the qualities you admired — like a cannibal. Matthew said that that was what they told him. But speaking with him made the stakes feel higher to me and to Chloë, you know? Suddenly it was in our backyard. It wasn’t something we were theoretically discussing. It was real.
So that’s what it changed for me. For Chloë, I think she wasn’t quite sure if Cameron ever doubted herself, and she played Cameron with a lot more confidence than I had originally anticipated she would, but I think when she met Matthew, she realized that he really did get into it and there was a moment. So she did have a moment where the character doubts herself. That was through meeting Matthew and realizing that he genuinely wanted to change.
The movie is also a really interesting tonal balance, where you have these characters who laugh at what’s going on as a means of protection and survival.
But that’s being a teen. If you work with teenagers, they are just making fun of you constantly. Teenagers use sarcasm as a minute-by-minute survival technique and it’s a defense mechanism. So they’re taking the piss, but they’re also covering up how much shame they’re feeling.
But I wonder as a filmmaker, how did you balance that very real way that teenagers deal with trauma with not distancing the audience too much from the movie? If the characters themselves are distancing themselves from what’s happening by laughing, I wonder how you don’t make sure the audience is doing the same thing— that we’re not being distanced along with them.
I think that has to do with the juxtaposition of comedy and the horrifying truth of what’s happening. So I think we went back and forth with the scenes and the dialogue where you can be comfortable and then suddenly, the horror of the truth of that place emerges. So I think it dances between that easy comedy and banality and the truth of what that place is preaching.
Because the movie isn’t a documentary, what was most important for you to express about the horrors of conversion therapy?
I didn’t make it to express the horrors of conversion therapy. I wanted to make it about the horrors of being a teenager. So to me, it was about a journey of self — watching this young person piece together an identity once people are actively brainwashing her. So that’s what was important to me. It was like, “What do I need to communicate about being a young woman, standing up for yourself, and coming into your own skin?” So for me, it was important to have authentic sex. It was important to show Cameron create a family of friends. But yeah, I never had an agenda in terms of the politics I was communicating. To me, it was about this girl, this journey.
When you were promoting Appropriate Behavior, you talked about the fact that it wasn’t autobiographical but it expressed certain things about your own experience through someone else’s experience. Were there ways in which you felt that expressing Cameron Post’s story expressed your own?
To me, this was my rehab. I went to a rehabilitation center for an eating disorder in my 20s and I always wanted to make a movie about that. As we were adapting this, suddenly I realized like this was my opportunity to talk about those rooms where I was with a bunch of other young women who were all blindly chasing getting better, but we didn’t quite know what better looked like. We put ourselves completely in the hands of the professionals we hired to help us and help save us from ourselves and from our own instincts.
The funny thing with eating disorders is you can’t cut it out of your life like you would alcohol or narcotics. It’s a relationship you need to reconfigure on a daily basis. You can turn down the volume on your problems with food, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You have to look at what’s beneath the surface that’s making you act out in this way, but to me, the question was: “What if this was something as ingrained in me as my sexuality? How would I possibly become better?” So, this was incredibly personal to me.
There’s that great line in that movie that you would never throw pride parades for addicts. Writing that must have felt so painful considering everything you’ve been through.
No, it felt laughable. To me, that was such a great explanation of where this woman’s mindset was and how she views things.
In terms of how the film uses laughter to show people coping with horrible things that happened to them, was laughter a coping mechanism for you at all?
Yeah, it’s my personality though. I think some people are more serious, and some people are more poetic. I am a comedian and everything is black.
With the film’s reception at Sundance, what was the thing that most surprised you the most?
I’m surprised by negativity. I really love it when people connect to the film and when I find that someone — when I read the ways that people don’t connect to it, it really shocks me.
What have been ways that people felt like they didn’t connect to it?
One reviewer said it was like an after-school special. Another person said it was like a Lifetime movie. I feel like those are really gendered responses you wouldn’t say about a film that starred male protagonists. I feel like we get ghettoized into the female lesbian genre because it’s a safe place to put it. They’re male reviewers, and it’s really shocking to me that male reviewers usually have a really hard time relating. It’s funny to me because I’ve been relating to white, straight men as a viewer all my life and loving their movies. So it’s bonkers to me that they can’t relate to a world that’s different from them, but they haven’t had to. I was raised being taught to relate to people who have lives that don’t reflect mine at all.
So that’s the thing that shocks me and it makes me think I was so naïve to go into everything thinking the world would be reflected back at me the way I see it. It’s terrible to focus on the negativity, but every director does and there’s so much positivity out there. It’s surprising and lovely, but when you’re as much as an asshole egomaniac as I am, I just hold onto everything. You’re like, “I’m alone in the world and no one understands me.”
One of my favorite writers, Dana Schwartz, was talking about the fact that when her book came out all of these reviewers referred to it as being a “guilty pleasure” because it was a woman talking about her emotional subjectivity. It seems to me to be the same kind of response — a way of distancing ourselves from having to empathize with other people. This is not only an LGBTQ story, but it’s a woman directed by a woman of color.
Have those sorts of obstacles been an issue for you when trying to make and distribute this film?
It took two months to distribute this film. The film could be the same subject matter but directed by a straight, white man and about a boy and be released by Focus, with a wide release around the country. The facts are the facts.
I thought about that with the release of Boy Erased. I think it’s a really good book.
I’m excited that it’s being made. It’s very cool.
It’s great, but I wish that excitement could also be shared about this film. It feels like there’s such a double standard. How do you deal with that as a filmmaker?
You keep moving and making new things. You don’t stop.
My editor begged me to ask you about your Hulu show because she hadn’t heard any new news about it. What’s happening with it?
When I fly back to London this weekend, I’m going to go straight into sound mixing, and we’re going to be on Hulu I think November. So it’s definitely the fall. We’re going to be on British television on Channel 4 in October, so I think that will be out in November, but I’m really pleased with it. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s absurd, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. I’m just really, really proud of it.
And how is it different for you from other projects that you’ve created?
Well, it’s a television show, so I had a lot more collaborators. I had to answer to networks instead of producers, so it was intense. The process of making it was harder. I directed all the episodes, and that was like shooting two features in a row. It was very intense. It was a much harder process but at the end of the day, I feel as proud of it as I have with anything else I’ve done. Well, I feel more proud because it was a lot harder.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Images via Getty