Introducing The Miseducation of Cameron Post at the Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Desiree Akhavan said she thought of the film as a story about growing up queer “that feels like a John Hughes movie”—telegraphing a certain coming-of-age tone that might read as odd when one learns that the film is set at a gay conversion therapy camp in the early ’90s.
Adapted from Emily Danforth’s 2012 novel, Cameron Post is Akhavan’s second feature, marking her return to Sundance following her breakout, semi-autobiographical debut, Appropriate Behavior.
Starring Chloe Grace Moretz as its titular character, the film is a tonal tightrope walk. As Akhavan extricates the pain, loathing, and confusion of teenagers at a camp meant to exorcise their intrinsic identities, she purposefully surfaces the irreverence and fleeting moments of humor that these characters wield as coping mechanisms.
It can be nerve-wracking to watch as the film teeters along the journey, but ovation-worthy when it pulls off the impressive act.
The result is a simultaneously tender and lacerating coming-of-age story about the scary, obstacle-ridden journey to discover one’s self and sexuality. It’s a story that is as universal—what teenager hasn’t wanted to change?—as it is achingly specific: This is a queer story, with immense power in the simple act of feeling seen.
“You keep having to do mental math,” Akhavan says when we meet in Park City the afternoon after Cameron Post’s premiere, explaining how frustrating it can be for queer people to watch coming-of-age tales and trying to piece together how they fit into them.
When you see yourself in something like Cameron Post, “it also reinforces your own weirdness to you,” she says. “Not seeing yourself on screen, it’s so funny because it’s quite superficial in some ways. It’s just tele. It’s just movies. But then they’re so weirdly powerful, these images that we spend time with.”
It’s easy to undersell how cathartic a film like this can be. While not all of us may have survived gay conversion therapy, most queer people can identify with the messaging that, especially when they were younger, being gay or bisexual or questioning is a character flaw, a hurdle to normalcy you’ll never clear.
In pop culture, we’re presented the spectrum of classifications: “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” But what about me? What about the queer kid? One who isn’t a joke, a side character, or a tragic narrative device? You clamor to be a member of the club, breakfast or otherwise. You feel deprived of the jukebox-outside-the-window, epic-day-off, sixteen candles kind of grand cinematic moments that are so rousing because they reflect all the angst and hope that you feel, but never get to see.
“It’s weird how deeply comforting it is when you come out and you feel so alone and you binge watch anything with anyone gay,” Akhavan says. “When you see the characters together, for me, it legitimized everything I was going through. It felt like I had friends in that moment. So deeply simplistic and stupid, but powerful at the same time.”
When we meet Moretz’s Cameron Post, she is in the ecstatic throes of a hormonal affair with a female classmate: lots of making out and fingering and escalated passion and emotion. But when they get caught fooling around in the backseat of a car on prom night, Cameron is swiftly shipped off to God’s Promise, a gay conversion school, in order to “get better.”
Homosexuality doesn’t exist in the eyes of God’s Promises’ unforgiving leaders, whose mission is to get to the root of their disciples’ “gender confusion.” Erin (Emily Skeggs) spent too much time watching football with her dad. Adam (Forrest Goodluck) did crafts with his mom. Cameron’s masculine name may even to be blame.
The characters all have their laugh lines and quirks, but are given immense dignity, too. A good number of them genuinely want to be there and want to change; what young person wouldn’t, after being told that they are “wrong”? There are no caricatures of the too-cool kids who see through the school’s mission, and no painting of the kids who are really there to change as bible-thumping lunatics.
And while the sledgehammer of shame wielded by the God’s Promise leaders is meant to bludgeon homosexuality out of these teenagers, the broader picture isn’t hard to see: Shame, self-loathing, and feeling like a freak is part of the teenage experience.
There’s one clarifying exchange in which Cameron declares, “I’m tired of feeling disgusted with myself,” to which a disciple played by Sasha Lane replies, “Maybe you’re supposed to feel disgusted with yourself. You’re a teenager.”
Combating those emotional reflexes requires great courage. Succumbing to them is all too easy when you’re berated into thinking they’re true.
“The issues are something that we get the luxury of looking at now that it’s done,” Akhavan says. “But at the time it was so much about how do we tell this story really well, which is this story of this girl who came there with a really strong sense of her own identity and starts to doubt herself, and what does it take for her to take action.”
Not that she discounts the issues. Far from it: She is eagerly lassoing the opportunity to use the film as a conversation starter. And, just 24 hours after Cameron Post’s premiere, she is visibly emotional at the very personal reaction the film is already stirring.
During a Q&A that followed the film’s Sundance premiere, Akhavan and Moretz revealed that they consulted survivors of gay conversion therapy before making the film; many of the therapy scenes were inspired directly by those anecdotes.
One of the film’s consultants, Matthew Shurka, came on stage to reveal, to the audience’s gasps, the extent to which gay conversion therapy is still legal in most of America: Only nine states have outlawed it, and for minors only. New Hampshire, which most of us view as a fairly liberal state, recently voted against making it illegal.
“I think it’s really naive to think that the government is on the right side of history with this,” Akhavan says, offering a depressed sigh at the mention of Vice President Mike Pence, who rose to the second-highest government position in the country with support for gay conversion therapy as one of his pillar platforms.
“To me, this is a story about homeless queer teens,” she says. “When people leave the film I want them to know that’s the backstory. That’s how kids get on the street. That there’s a huge population of homeless queer teens.”
Cameron Post may be a period piece set in the ’90s, but it’s very much a modern story as well.
There’s a tension between the film’s constant refrain of dialogue, in which the disciples strive to “get better,” and today’s heralded message of hope: “It gets better.”
“For me it was less about sexuality and more about rehab and getting better,” Akhavan says. “I spent time in an eating disorder facility. I know what it’s like to be in those rooms, those group therapy rooms, and to be chasing something that you don’t feel capable of. I got a lot of help and it changed my life in a really positive way. But I always wondered if I was trying to change something as intrinsic as my sexuality it would be an impossible task.”
Growing up, she says, you are constantly brainwashed. “Your classmates brainwash you into thinking you’re an idiot. Your teachers brainwash you into thinking whatever they think of the world. Your parents brainwash you in certain ways.”
“In your twenties, you’re sort of deprogramming your brain a little, to sort of figure out the balance between your instincts and your education, your social education especially,” she continues. “For me, my social education was that being gay is a handicap. Why would you choose that when you have the option? You’re bisexual, so why would you choose to be with women? It’s embarrassing and you’re embarrassing yourself.”
The film, while adapted from Danforth’s book, is incredibly personal for her.
“It’s been my twenties of trying to examine why those are my instincts and how to battle them,” she says. “Making this film wasn’t about changing anything about my past. It was dramatizing crazy things I remembered about my transition.”