On paper, Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post might sound like the making of a somber tearjerker. Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the titular Cameron, a teenage girl growing up in Montana in 1993 whose boyfriend dramatically discovers her making out with her best girl friend on homecoming night. She’s then shipped off to God’s Promise, a terrifying Evangelical conversion therapy camp where she and other teenagers are forced to pray away their “same-sex attractions” and are undoubtedly emotionally abused in the process.
But Cameron Post couldn’t be farther from sad, sappy, coming-of-age fare. Co-written and directed by Desiree Akhavan, and based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, the film takes on its difficult subject matter with a dry, cynical tongue, one which allows viewers to take in the demonizing rhetoric of God’s Promise and then stick up a big, fat middle finger to the whole charade.
Cameron, and the weed-growing, rebellious friends she makes at the camp, Adam and the inexplicably named “Jane Fonda” (played wryly by actors Forrest Goodluck and Sasha Lane, respectively), along with the rest of the campers, are forced to reckon with the fact that the adults of God’s Promise see their identities as inherently sinful. But Akhavan lets the stony Christian rhetoric steep in its ridiculousness on-screen. “I guess the Breeders aren’t singing in praise of the lord,” the camp’s Reverend Rick, who struggled with his sexuality before being “converted,” chuckles cheerfully at Cameron before he throws her cassette in the trash. You know that these are not characters struggling to figure out who they are, but characters who know who they are already, in a world struggling to figure them out.
Akhavan’s work has long focused on the ways in which queer women navigate and discover their sexuality, from her short-running web series The Slope, which explored “homophobic, superficial lesbians” in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to her hilarious 2014 Sundance debut, Appropriate Behavior, inspired by her experiences as a bisexual Iranian-American woman. There’s also her forthcoming U.K. show The Bisexual, which she’ll write and star in as well. As a director who’s admittedly taken a different path than a lot of the filmmakers who float through Sundance (read: white dudes), Akhavan speaks frankly about finding the space in her industry to create work that speaks to her.
Here, in an edited and condensed conversation, we talk about researching for Cameron Post, why she loves John Hughes movies, and what filmmakers disillusioned by the traditional Hollywood route should do.
JEZEBEL: What attracted you to this story?
DESIREE AKHAVAN: Well, I loved the book. I read the book when it first came out and I shared it with everyone I knew. I felt like I hadn’t read a teen coming-of-age story that was so honest, and the fact that it was queer was also incredibly cool. My girlfriend at the time, when she first read it, she said this would make a classic film. I agreed with her and we’d play that game you play where you’re like, okay, if this was a movie how would you make it? I knew I’d always want to focus on [the conversion camp] God’s Promise, but I kind of shoved it into the back of my head, [because] this was before I made my first film [Appropriate Behavior]. After I made my first film, my writing and producing partner [Cecilia Frugiuele] and I were talking and I said you know, there’s this book I love but later in our careers we should look at it because it’s going to require a lot of skill. And the minute she put [the book] down she got the rights.
You say you were playing that game of, if I can make this into a movie how would I do it. Do you feel like your vision for what the movie was going to be changed over time?
Over the course of writing it, I learned—and I had never adapted anything before—that you have to let go of the book. For the first half of our project, we were very loyal to it and something shifted and it was like oh, the thing we love the most, the thing that drove us to adapt it, was its tone. I knew in that tone we’d have to change a lot of the details and scenes. Does it match up to what I thought the movie would be in my head? Yes and no. I wish I had a clear answer for that. Does it look like how I thought it would? I was pretty open. I didn’t have a very prescriptive model for what things needed to look like when I went into it. That tone, that humor, that pathos, is definitely the same as the way I started; the costumes, the faces, I wasn’t married to that.
What kind of research into conversation therapy and conversion camps did you do?
First we started with what Emily [Danforth] gave us. She shared with us books and documentaries, people she had researched. That was our jumping off point and it took us down a wormhole of various forms of therapy and looking at Exodus International and the different people they championed. Exodus International was an umbrella organization for gay conversion therapy and it’s just been defunct a few years now, but we looked into all different forms.
I’ve been in therapy for most of my life and a lot of the different tools of psychology [in conversion therapy] are utilized in an ad hoc way and messed with. It’s a messy slippery slope and we were knee-deep in it for about a year of research while we were writing. The book was the launchpad, but then it was like okay, where can we utilize what kinds of techniques they used? How did preachers talk to teens? What are the ways they would scare people into following blindly? Then before going into production, I met with some survivors of gay conversion therapy and a lot of the work we had done and the script we had done had added up to what these people experienced.
Was there anything you learned in talking to those survivors or diving into all that research that stuck with you?
I was horrified by how villainized their instincts were and the violent extremes that their families went through. [Activist] Mathew Shurka was one of the men that we spoke to and he started conversion therapy as a teenager in New York while living in Long Island. His doctor prescribed him Viagra so that he could sleep with girls. And he lived in a house with his mother and his sister and his dad, but he was only allowed to speak with his father. The conversion therapy is super simplistic. It’s like if you’re a gay man and not spending time with other men, you need to create positive bonds with other men and avoid women because you’ve had too much feminine coding and you need to develop your masculine traits. So he wasn’t allowed to speak with his mother and his sister for two years while living with them.
I was really shocked by the severity of that. I couldn’t believe that he was living a life so close to where I was raised and living it under such harsh circumstances that still wouldn’t have been apparent to necessarily anyone in his high school? That’s what surprised me. It wasn’t like he was in bumble-fuck nowhere, it’s not like he was in a residential facility. He was going to high school in Long Island. I was surprised by that.
Some of the things these adults at God’s Promise are saying to these kids is really horrifying and jarring, but you allow your characters to laugh at it.
At the end of the day, Cameron’s a teenager, and I think whatever you’re going to throw at someone they’re going to laugh at it. I mean, most people, I think it depends on your personality, but the worst moments of my life are by far the funniest. I always respond to things with humor. The funny thing about the stories of abuse [I saw] when I was growing up with television or movies, [they] didn’t match up to what I knew in life and that made me feel crazy. It was always done with the best of intentions, but at the same time, even though my life felt strange, I’m the child of immigrants, I’m queer—I had a sense of humor about myself. And when I felt like people were victimized on screen because of special circumstances, they would just feel so fucking sorry for themselves all the time. I had no interest in making a film about people who feel sorry for themselves. I wanted to make a John Hughes film. I wanted to make a teen film that I wanted to see as a teen and craved all the time, that I hadn’t seen in awhile. I feel like teen films right now are a little too self-aware in a cute way or I don’t know, a little too try-hard.
What specifically about John Hughes movies did you want to emulate in Cameron Post?
I feel like with the exception of casual rape in Sixteen Candles [laughs]... I mean, there are lots of things I don’t like about his movies, [but] I like the tone. They’re for adults who look back on that time of their life with a grain of salt and understand it was just a phase. The stakes are as high as they can be, yet not high at all, you know? Your parents forgetting your birthday is just horrifying and makes you feel super unloved, but it was fine. They feel like memories. A lot of his films are about that time in your life when you realize adults don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. You’re raised to blindly follow them and never question them, and then at some point in your teens, you’re like: wait a minute, you don’t know anything more than I do. That realization is really crushing and what’s good and bad, right and wrong, is something each person has to do figure out for themselves. To me, that’s the heart of this film and the heart of the John Hughes movies I loved. The stakes are just a little bit different here.
When I think about a lot of mainstream teen movies, they kind of culminate or the plot is driven by a romance, or a coupling specifically, and in your movie at least to me it felt like it was about finding a group of friends or a new family in a sense. Do you feel like those kinds of bonds are underrated in teen movies?
Oh yeah. Every teen movie I saw was like once you find that partner you’ll be fine... But what if you’re not fuckable? [Laughs]. My teen years were feeling like nobody would ever touch me and therefore I’d die alone and those films drill it into you that romantic love solves everything. And even if you find romantic love, you’re like, oh wait, this didn’t solve all my problems! I think that’s a dangerous message to send to kids.
The real thing was finding my allies and people who make you feel like you’re not alone in the world. Yeah, that can come from romantic relationships, but those are temporary, especially when they start super young. I definitely don’t want to send that message to kids, that all you need to do is get laid, and that’s why relationships when you’re a teenage girl are usually terrible [laughs]. That’s why so many teen girls end up staying in awful relationships, because it’s like well, that person wants me and it’s my one hope and you blindly chase this romance... I think the way we sell romance to young girls is really dangerous.
I know that Appropriate Behavior wasn’t exactly auto-biographical...
It was personal.
Yeah, your personal experiences informed it. In talking with you, it seems like you have a sort of kinship to Cameron. I wonder if you feel like you’re always bringing elements of your own life and experiences to your characters?
For sure. You have to have an in; you have to have a reason why this speaks to you and why you should make this film. I don’t necessarily think I’m like Cameron—I didn’t grow up Evangelical, I didn’t have nearly as much as sex as she has in the film [laughs], but that fear of disappointing everyone around you because you’re chasing what you want, I understand that completely. Wanting to suppress those desires for the greater good and something bigger than yourself, to be better than yourself, is something I understand completely.
To veer off a little bit, you’ve been very candid about your experience debuting Appropriate Behavior at Sundance, and you’ve talked before about how you were getting scripts that you didn’t want to do. It seems like you’ve kind of gone on your own path as a filmmaker. When did you know it was time to work on your second feature?
I was always working on it. I wrote this when I was working on my television series [The Bisexual]. There just weren’t good opportunities for me after that film came out. I didn’t have any next step, so I just made a bunch of stuff for myself. I started a bunch of sparks and wanted to see which became real, and they all came together at the same time. I started writing Cameron Post around the same time I was writing the TV series, and I started writing a book and everything kind of got green-lit at once at the same time but years later. I was blindly trying to build a space for myself for awhile before anything tangibly happened.
I think when people talk about debuting a hit movie at Sundance, there’s this expectation that you’re going to go straight into your next movie or you’re going to get all these opportunities. Do you feel like that’s kind of a myth? Or only available to certain people?
I haven’t seen that happen to the women around me. I will say that I know a man who just debuted his first film who’s now shooting a very high budget show for Netflix. I don’t know any women who’ve had that situation. I just think it’s a different set of opportunities out there when you’re a woman working in any industry let alone the film industry.
The independent film industry in America is changing and the way we monetize things are changing because of Netflix and Amazon. The sales are different. Before when Clerks and Go Fish debuted at Sundance, it was a very different world. There’s a very different trajectory now as an independent filmmaker. You become a hustler. I really didn’t want to put my faith in other people to help me take the next steps I wanted to take in terms of my career. I only wanted it to be myself and my writing partner Cecilia at the wheel. But that said, I took those weeks in L.A. I read those scripts. There wasn’t anything out there. It wasn’t the world I thought it would be. I do think that world exists for men who have a film that does well at Sundance.
Do you have advice to filmmakers who go through a similar experience, where Hollywood isn’t the world they thought it would be?
Create opportunities for yourself. Keep telling stories you want to tell and find a way to pay your rent. It became really important to me what my definition of success was after I made Appropriate Behavior because I couldn’t pay my rent. I didn’t quite know how to make ends meet those first two years and once I figured that out, it was really nice and my destiny wasn’t in anyone’s hands. I think the fear for a lot of people is feeling entitled and not having things go your way, but you can control where your livelihood comes from.
I’m really grateful things turned out this way for me. I think if those opportunities had been there, had people wanted to put money in my pocket, I would have attempted to do a lot of work that speaks to me, and the work I made now I’m really proud of. I like the control I’ve had. I knew filmmakers who were getting major opportunities around 2014 when I premiered my film and they had to compromise a lot and make work that was diluted because of the powers at be, and I’m grateful that didn’t happen to me, because nobody gave me anything! [Laughs].
After Cameron Post, what is your next move? What are the kinds of stories that you want to be working on next?
I would like to make something super mainstream. I would like to make a big studio film with a bloated budget that your immigrant dad wants to see when you come home for Christmas. I would love to make a film you can’t help but know about. I love Cameron Post, but my fear is that it will preach to the choir, and I don’t have an interest in doing that. I didn’t watch art films growing up. I watched mainstream films. I want to be ambitious, and I want to work in that arena.
Romcom, action, horror...?
[Laughs] I’m so open! I’m open to finding something within those genres that speaks to me personally that aligns with my politics.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is in theaters August 3.