The indie break-out film starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Sasha Lane is set in the 90s, but reflects an evangelical hysteria that still exists today
There are surprisingly few films about gay conversion therapy camps. Prior to this year, you’d have to rewind all the way back to But I’m a Cheerleader, a 1999 cult comedy that was more cartoonish than dramatic. The thing is, these institutions are disturbingly real, to the extent that Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States, has previously voiced his support for the practice. A recent UCLA study estimates that 20,000 US teens will undergo gay conversion therapy before the age of 18.
So even though Desiree Akhavan’s new movie, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is a 1993-set period drama, the topic is still worryingly relevant. In the Iranian-American director’s adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s novel, Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Cameron Post, a twitchy teen who gets hot and heavy with a female classmate. Caught in the act by a Jesus-loving aunt, Cameron is sent to God’s Promise, a camp designed to stamp out “same-sex attraction”. Aside from a Breeders cassette confiscated upon arrival, there are few clues it’s the 90s.
Once there, Cameron meets an array of queer kids, including pot-smoking rebels Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck). The irony here is that Cameron, an outsider attuned to hiding her gayness, is suddenly surrounded by likeminded individuals. Moreover, the camp’s leaders, Lydia (Jennifer Ehle) and Rick (John Gallagher Jr), aren’t the archetypal movie baddies you’re expecting: Rick, in particular, is a self-hating homosexual, a tragic figure who speaks of gratitude that a church felt his “soul was worth saving”. (That said, Adam dismisses Rick as a “Disney villain, except this one won’t let you jerk off”.)
The vibe of God’s Promise, then, sits somewhere between a prison and the type of summer camp where introverts lose their virginity. Exercises to “cure” homosexuality range from jotting down one’s past trauma into the shape of an iceberg, to prancing along to fitness videos. At one point, Adam’s hair is cut against his wishes because a long fringe is akin to “hiding from God”. Basically, the mood is far more melancholic that Akhavan’s directorial debut, Appropriate Behaviour, which depicted the hilarity of having a threesome, or indeed her supporting role as Hannah’s rival on Girls. If that bothers you, well, Akhavan also has a Channel 4 sitcom, The Bisexual, due to air in October.
We spoke to Akhavan about subverting Moretz’s Hollywood persona, the film industry’s discomfort with female sexuality, and how her experiences with rehab shaped her depiction of God’s Promise.
You’ve been wanting to make this film since 2011. A lot’s happened – and not happened – since then. How did the idea evolve over those years?
Desiree Akhavan: The landscape changed, and the US election happened in the middle of shooting. But my vision for the film remained consistent. We wanted to make a John Hughes-style teen movie.
You probably didn’t expect Mike Pence to make it into the White House, but why didn’t you set it in the present day?
Desiree Akhavan: Even if I had known that Mike Pence was going to become the Vice President of the United States, it was really clear that the stakes would be different if they had cell phones. The stakes would be different if the internet existed, and if Ellen had her own talk show. It would be a very different experience of being gay.
It’s not like it has to be the 90s. But it was important to me that they had no view of the outside world, and that these kids were truly isolated. They had no icons, and no idea of what a functional out life would look like as a homosexual.
In the flashback, Chloe is watching Desert Hearts. Was that to show the importance that films like Cameron Post can have for modern viewers?
Desiree Akhavan: Yeah. That’s all that they had back then. Desert Hearts is an iconic film and the only one of its kind.
I was anticipating Rick to be a Nurse Ratched monster, but you really humanise him. Not just his backstory about frequenting gay clubs, but his love of Young Frankenstein and the little “yay” when he changes a tyre. What prompted that decision?
Desiree Akhavan: My co-writer and I really felt that, if we had done our job well, you would kind of agree with Rick and Lydia, and you would find yourself loving them. It’s easy to hate the person in charge of the gay conversion therapy centre, but a good film would show you their point of view. Both of them are based on people that we researched, that we fell in love with, and felt nothing but sympathy for.
Rick says he was lonely and felt grateful a community believed his soul was worth saving. Do these groups typically prey on the vulnerable?
Desiree Akhavan: I think anyone who believes this interpretation of the Bible and finds themselves attracted to the same sex is vulnerable. Because you think you have a disease. So yeah, it’s vulnerable, but it’s because they’re in a vulnerable position, inherently.
“Anyone who believes this interpretation of the Bible and finds themselves attracted to the same sex is vulnerable. Because you think you have a disease” – Desiree Akhavan
Can you tell me about researching the practicalities of these camps? It sounds like they’d end up like the Olympic Village.
Desiree Akhavan: They’re hotbeds for hook-ups, apparently. According to the people I spoke to who have been to gay conversion therapy, it’s where most people meet other gay kids for the first time. They’re probably coming from really isolated rural towns where no one else is openly identifying with these desires.
But at the same time, there’s a lot of self-hatred and self-denial, too. They’re working so hard to get better, and most of the kids are putting all their effort into trying to eradicate these feelings through the ridiculous techniques they keep employing.
What did you learn from speaking to activists like Matthew Shurka beforehand?
Desiree Akhavan: Matthew and a couple of others who survived gay conversion therapy met with me and Chloe before going into production. It was heartbreaking. Matthew was assigned the homework of sleeping with women, and prescribed Viagra as a means to complete the task. He lived with his mother and sisters, but wasn’t allowed to speak with them for two years, because he was too feminine and had to surround himself with male role models.
Chloë had dropped out of Sofia Coppola’s The Little Mermaid and was eager to do a cool indie project. But she’s also someone known primarily for Kick-Ass, Bad Neighbours 2, and playing a parody of a stuck-up actor in Clouds of Sils Maria. What was in it for you?
Desiree Akhavan: I wanted to play with her persona. She was always a bit of a princess in Hollywood films, someone who was super done-up and super feminine. I wanted to see her play a dyke, and to really own a lesbian character with swagger, and who had no glamour. It’s not the Chloë you know. My favourite bit of casting is Tom Cruise in Magnolia. I love it when an actor goes completely the opposite of what you’ve seen them as.
“My favourite bit of casting is Tom Cruise in Magnolia. I love it when an actor goes completely the opposite of what you’ve seen them as” - Desiree Akhavan
Chloë is such a bankable star, and the film won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in January. Why was there an online petition in March to get distribution? Past Sundance winners, like Whiplash, went on to get expensive Oscar pushes.
Desiree Akhavan: I think it’s the fact that it’s to do with female sexual coming of age. In the US, we struggled to get distribution. In the US, they’ve had a lot of success with young gay male stories, with Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon. But for some reason, this film was a really hard sell. I think there’s a lot of discomfort with stories of female sexuality, especially one told from a female perspective.
Is that more of an American thing?
Desiree Akhavan: I think it is, but I’m not an expert. This is my experience as an indie filmmaker who was raised in America, that I’ve had a much harder time selling work there than I’ve had in England. I choose to live in England because my work is sold here.
To be fair, it was a bad year for indie film. Netflix and Amazon didn’t bid on any films at Sundance. Only a couple of films sold. It’s telling that Assassination Nation was the one big sale to come out of Sundance, and it’s a bunch of hot girls with machine guns. Whereas the sensitively drawn, auteur, gay story about a young woman was overlooked.
If Matt Damon had adapted this novel and handled the direction, it would look very different.
Desiree Akhavan: But it would have sold! If any dude had made this story, it would have sold.
Could you describe what you bring to this story, as opposed to a Matt Damon version?
Desiree Akhavan: I bring authenticity. How many queer women have directed queer female stories that have touched the mainstream? It just doesn’t happen. I’m very grateful for any attention this film gets, because it’s such a rare thing.
There’s a lot of fear around women’s experience of sex, especially positive ones. Female desire is something that’s frowned upon in a lot of avenues of life, not just within the film industry. The film industry is reflective of a larger problem.
“Female desire is something that’s frowned upon in a lot of avenues of life” – Desiree Akhavan
Is that something you’re going to explore with your Channel 4 sitcom, The Bisexual?
Desiree Akhavan: Yeah. It has a lot to do with female desire. I made it after moving here. It’s about five characters who live and operate in Hackney, and their relationships. My character moves in with a straight white guy, and they become each other’s wingmen. She becomes his perspective into women’s interior lives, and he becomes her perspective into men’s.
Is there something about our cultural landscape that means The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased, another film about gay conversion camps, are both coming out this year?
Desiree Akhavan: It’s just a strange coincidence. But it’s funny that people assume that our film is a studio film, and that we strategically planned this. We’re just an indie film whose work was made on a shoestring budget, and happened to premiere at Sundance. None of this was planned.
Were there any filmmaking influences you were working from? I detected The Graduate and Peanuts.
Desiree Akhavan: Peanuts? As in Charlie Brown?
Yeah. When they’re lying on the grass; the absence of parents; the rhythm of the dialogue. I guess that’s just me?
Desiree Akhavan: That’s funny. I’ve never thought of that. The ending was definitely a nod to The Graduate. The lying on the grass was actually stolen from Todd Haynes’ Safe. Also, I looked at Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar. I love the way that was filmed. It lives a lot in the close-up. It’s almost a silent movie. And Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding is an inspiration in my filmmaking career – I make every cinematographer I work with watch it.
You don’t have to answer this if it’s too uncomfortable, but I found a very old interview in which you mentioned going to rehab for an eating disorder. Did that experience shape how you handled the camp scenes?
Desiree Akhavan: When we were looking at God’s Promise, it was a matter of designing it as a weird Frankenstein combination of boarding school, jail and rehab. I’ve been in so much group therapy in my life. I’ve spent years of my life chasing getting better. That was my “in” into understanding where these kids were, and what their feelings were in those spaces – it’s blindly chasing getting better.
When you’re dealing with something like food – unlike alcoholism or drug addiction – you can’t cut that thing out of your life. There are moments when your eating disorder can feel as part of your DNA as your sexuality. But it’s not. It’s something you can change about yourself. But I wondered, especially when I read this book, what if it was something as ingrained in me as my sexuality? How would you possibly get better?
“When I entered rehab, I felt like I was staring at 12 idiots” – Desiree Akhavan
But at the same time, it was incorporating the best parts of therapy and rehab. When I entered rehab, I felt like I was staring at 12 idiots. It was like, “I can’t stand everyone in this room. They’re so stupid. Why am in this place? I’ve made a mistake. I’m smarter than this, and I can do this on my own.”
And then over the course of your weeks, getting to know everyone, and anticipating the way the room shifts with each subject, you start to realise that you’re staring at 12 versions of yourself. And everything you hate about them, you’re just projecting your fears and disgust with yourself onto them.
Once you get to that stage, and you start listening to what they have to say, it becomes a really therapeutic, fantastic space to be in. I don’t think that’s untrue for Cameron in those rooms. That space, God’s Promise, is actually a great place for her, because she starts to realise that they’re all her, and they’re chasing something that’s not worth chasing.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is in cinemas 7th September and The Bisexual is coming to Channel 4 in October