Desiree Akhavan‚Äôs new feature challenges the old chestnut that cinematic storytelling‚Äôs narrative arc relies upon a character‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúconversion therapy,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs beautifully written young-adult novel set in Montana. Danforth‚Äôs character is 12 years old and, like ‚ÄúCam‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúreeducated.‚ÄĚ Akhavan, who is also an actress, co-wrote the screenplay with producer Cecilia Frugiuele.
‚ÄúI first read Emily‚Äôs book in 2012, and I hadn‚Äôt made a feature yet,‚ÄĚ Akhavan says, in a telephone interview from the U.K. ‚ÄúI thought it was fantastic but I couldn‚Äôt imagine having the resources to pull it off until I made Appropriate Behavior.‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄúThe Slope,‚ÄĚ named for the filmmaker‚Äôs Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, Park Slope. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs impossible to do a realistic adaptation and Emily knew that,‚ÄĚ Akhavan says. ‚ÄúYou take a leap of faith and a generous author lets you do that.‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äútherapies‚ÄĚ through Cam‚Äôs stay at ‚ÄúGod‚Äôs Promise,‚ÄĚ run by Dr. Lydia Marsh, a rather sinister, and at times convincing, Jennifer Ehle (A Quiet Passion).
The film stars Chlo√ę 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‚Äôs bold, self-contained personality, while resonant with her characterization, resulted in a character who did not undergo dramatic change. ‚ÄúSo then the question became: What can happen to her? What can throw her off at this place?‚ÄĚ Akhavan says. ‚ÄúOn the one hand, Cam was opening up, finding gay friends at God‚Äôs 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.‚ÄĚ
The filmmaker recalls ‚Äúcompletely rewriting‚ÄĚ the screenplay in the final edit. ‚ÄúLots of ADR,‚ÄĚ Akhavan says. ‚ÄúOur 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‚Äôs breakdown, but the story still holds up without that expected narrative arc.‚ÄĚ Actually, The Miseducation of Cameron Post has few gaffes, with its perfectly pitched performances and Akhavan‚Äôs skilled direction. It was shot on location in Saugerties, New York in 23 days.
‚ÄúThe film is something of an ensemble, even if it‚Äôs so much Chlo√ę‚Äôs story,‚ÄĚ Akhavan notes. The Iranian-American applauds her casting director Jessica Daniels, especially for suggesting Sasha Lane (American Honey), who shines as one of Cam‚Äôs closest allies. As for her star, Arkhavan observes, she was searching for a very particular quality: ‚ÄúI wanted someone with swagger, with self-knowledge, and I sensed that in Chlo√ę.‚ÄĚ
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is about Cam‚Äôs affirmation of her identity as a gay woman; there are sex scenes and Cam‚Äôs sensuality is apparent, yet Akhavan never objectifies or sexualizes her protagonist. When asked about this and other aspects of her female gaze, she replies: ‚ÄúI surround myself with women and collaborators who see the world the way I do. It‚Äôs funny you should ask about the female gaze. I‚Äôm 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.‚ÄĚ The male director of photography focused on one of the female dancers‚Äô hips and breasts. ‚ÄúWhen she was center frame, it was gauche. It was like watching her in a really leering way‚Ä¶that was such a clear-cut example to me of male gale versus female gaze.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs favorite filmmakers. ‚ÄúIn movies, no one ever thinks anyone is horny,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúIt blows my mind the way others depict female sexuality. She‚Äôs the only director who goes there. Abuse of Weakness‚ÄĒI was the exception among my friends because I really liked that movie.‚ÄĚ
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. ‚ÄúWe have 80 cinemas in England, and three in the U.S.,‚ÄĚ Akhavan points out. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs 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.‚ÄĚ