Camp Coercion: Desiree Akhavan's 'Miseducation of Cameron Post' tackles gay conversion 'therapy'

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Desiree Akhavan’s new feature challenges the old chestnut that cinematic storytelling’s narrative arc relies upon a character’s dramatic transformation. In fact, in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the writer-director questions whether anyone, including her eponymous protagonist, can change their essential nature. Cameron is a lesbian. When she is discovered having sex with the prom queen, her religious aunt insists on “conversion therapy,” but the teenager never quite accepts the underlying notion that she is somehow imperfect.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s beautifully written young-adult novel set in Montana. Danforth’s character is 12 years old and, like “Cam” in the film, has recently lost her parents in a car accident. She, too, is outed as a lesbian, and dispatched to a camp to be “reeducated.” Akhavan, who is also an actress, co-wrote the screenplay with producer Cecilia Frugiuele.

“I first read Emily’s book in 2012, and I hadn’t made a feature yet,” Akhavan says, in a telephone interview from the U.K. “I thought it was fantastic but I couldn’t imagine having the resources to pull it off until I made Appropriate Behavior.” That first feature, about a lesbian (Akhavan) coming out to her Iranian family, no doubt autobiographical, is a hilarious romantic comedy.

Akhavan met with Danforth and discovered that the writer was a fan of her web series “The Slope,” named for the filmmaker’s Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, Park Slope. “It’s impossible to do a realistic adaptation and Emily knew that,” Akhavan says. “You take a leap of faith and a generous author lets you do that.” The writer-director reports that Danforth is happy with the film, which is based mostly on the final part of the novel, after Cam arrives at the conversion camp. Conversion therapy, the brainchild of religious extremists, is touted as a cure for homosexuality; it is universally criticized by mainstream psychologists, and is illegal in a growing number of states. In the movie, Akhavan accurately illustrates the methods used in such “therapies” through Cam’s stay at “God’s Promise,” run by Dr. Lydia Marsh, a rather sinister, and at times convincing, Jennifer Ehle (A Quiet Passion).

The film stars Chloë Grace Moretz (Clouds of Sils Maria, If I Stay) as Cam, a confident, athletic girl who experiences profound moments of doubt after receiving a letter from her girlfriend back home. Akhavan recalls that she and her collaborators were in post-production when they realized that Moretz’s bold, self-contained personality, while resonant with her characterization, resulted in a character who did not undergo dramatic change. “So then the question became: What can happen to her? What can throw her off at this place?” Akhavan says. “On the one hand, Cam was opening up, finding gay friends at God’s Promise, which is really cool, but then it became necessary to add flashbacks of Coley, the girlfriend. We built the narrative of Cam getting that letter that accuses her of exploiting their friendship and Cam trying to be more straight.”

The filmmaker recalls “completely rewriting” the screenplay in the final edit. “Lots of ADR,” Akhavan says. “Our first cut was intelligent, but it was not emotionally gripping. I think we dumbed it down a bit to make you feel the gut punch Cameron gets from the letter and another character’s breakdown, but the story still holds up without that expected narrative arc.” Actually, The Miseducation of Cameron Post has few gaffes, with its perfectly pitched performances and Akhavan’s skilled direction. It was shot on location in Saugerties, New York in 23 days.

“The film is something of an ensemble, even if it’s so much Chloë’s story,” Akhavan notes. The Iranian-American applauds her casting director Jessica Daniels, especially for suggesting Sasha Lane (American Honey), who shines as one of Cam’s closest allies. As for her star, Arkhavan observes, she was searching for a very particular quality: “I wanted someone with swagger, with self-knowledge, and I sensed that in Chloë.”

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is about Cam’s affirmation of her identity as a gay woman; there are sex scenes and Cam’s sensuality is apparent, yet Akhavan never objectifies or sexualizes her protagonist. When asked about this and other aspects of her female gaze, she replies: “I surround myself with women and collaborators who see the world the way I do. It’s funny you should ask about the female gaze. I’m editing something else right now, and there is a scene where a group of characters are dancing. Both my co-writer and I were watching an assembly and we flinched at the exact same moment when it was just not our gaze.” The male director of photography focused on one of the female dancers’ hips and breasts. “When she was center frame, it was gauche. It was like watching her in a really leering way…that was such a clear-cut example to me of male gale versus female gaze.”

Like many women filmmakers, Akhavan feels that the cinematic depiction of feminine sexuality, gay or straight, is rarely complex enough to be entirely authentic. Near the end of the interview, the name of Catherine Breillat is invoked; the French writer-director is among Akhavan’s favorite filmmakers. “In movies, no one ever thinks anyone is horny,” she says. “It blows my mind the way others depict female sexuality. She’s the only director who goes there. Abuse of Weakness—I was the exception among my friends because I really liked that movie.”

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is receiving a platform release by FilmRise in the U.S., opening initially in L.A. and New York on August 3. “We have 80 cinemas in England, and three in the U.S.,” Akhavan points out. “It’s hard to wrap my brain around what that means, that a female, queer-driven story cannot get screened in the States right now. I am hopeful that will not always be the case.”