“How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” the unimpressionable titular character in The Miseducation of Cameron Post asks at a crucial moment. Although set in 1993 at the LGBT "conversion therapy" camp God’s Promise, the film, based on the beloved 2012 YA novel, takes on an eerie prescience under the wildly anti-LGBT Trump/Pence administration.
Rife with teens made ever-more angsty by the Bible-thumping sister and brother team preaching reform to them, the new movie — out today — excavates the damage done to queer kids forced to believe they can adapt to heterosexuality. But wrapped in the cautionary tale is a fully-realized gay teen girl that’s radical in its depiction of burgeoning female desire and a departure from Hollywood’s current spate of adapting bildungsromans about queer boys coming into their sexuality.
Before the title card for the film even appears on screen, Desiree Akhavan, the bisexual Iranian-American director of the lively 2014 festival hit Appropriate Behavior, has established the dissonance of 11th-grader Cameron’s world. She cuts between scenes of Chloë Grace Moretz's Cameron staring blankly during a Bible class about the horrors of giving into sin to a sex scene with Cameron and her bible study classmate, Coley (Quinn Shephard). The scene is audacious in its rendering of frank female sexual desire and, also, an honest, rarely-seen authentic portrayal of sex between women.
In a year when relatively chaste representations of young gay men coming into their own have enjoyed varying success, with Love Simon and Netflix's Alex Strangelove garnering passionate fanbases and Call Me By Your Name earning Oscar nominations, it may seem risky at the box office (Cameron Post has no MPAA rating) to actually go there with sex scenes between women, but it was vital to Akhavan to give the audience something that’s generally missing from the screen.
“It hasn’t escaped me that there are no stories about women. There are very few depictions of female sexuality — gay or straight. But then — gay? There’s nothing that accurately depicts [it],” Akhavan tells The Advocate of her choice to fill that void on screen in a movie that pulls back the curtain on conversion therapy.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
"Whenever you see a lesbian sex scene in the mainstream it’s usually directed by a man and it feels like it’s an answer to that thesis question, How do women have sex with each other?” Akhavan adds. “It feels really sensational in that way. You’re like, “Oh, I’m having a very objective experience of this. I am just watching the mechanics of two women having sex with each other.”
Of course, Cameron and her fellow God’s Promise “disciples’ — as they’re deemed by the program’s alleged success story Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and his sister Lydia (a terrifying Jennifer Ehle), a religious zealot and a therapist who used her brother as her initial guinea pig for the program — can’t alter their sexuality or gender expression. And Akhavan’s decision, along with her cowriter Cecilia Frugiuele, to portray Cameron as a fully-formed gay teen with little to no pathos about her desire for women, only lends to the argument that the notion of deprogramming is futile.
But Akhavan and Frugiuele literally had a guidebook in Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 novel that became a touchstone for so many queer women of a certain age. The film truncates the relative tome of a YA novel set mainly in rural Montana to focus primarily on Cameron’s time at God’s promise. The throughline begins with the moment Cameron's soon-to-be friend Jane Fonda (American Honey's Sasha Lane) snaps a blurry Polaroid upon Cameron’s arrival at the camp to an incident of self-harm by one of the disciples that galvanizes Cameron, Jane, and their best friend Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who is “Winkte” or two-spirit.
“For the queer community, especially for lesbians in particular and queer women, [the novel] was a beacon of hope in the sense that they could be adequately depicted,” Moretz tells The Advocate. “Some books and stories can get very opportunistic by using being gay or being a part of the community as a plot device. This was a very realistic depiction of what it means to grow up as a young gay woman.”
“There was no face of conversion therapy and there was no face of gay [people],” Moretz says of the novel’s resonance, which has led the lifelong young activist to become a proponent of banning the practice of conversion therapy, which remains legal in about 38 states. She recently took to the stage at Los Angeles’s Outfest and rattled off the alarming rates of suicide and self-harm people forced into the practice suffer.
For the 22-year-old star of films including Kick-Ass and Clouds of Sils Maria, taking on the role of Cameron was personal, as she grew up in Georgia with two gay brothers and learned early on how to be an ally and advocate.
"We were shunned in many ways. My mother was treated as if she’d done something wrong for her kids to be gay,” Moretz says. “So that outward disrespect was something I was aware of when I was 11 years old when they came out. I had always been aware of it but I was more aware when they came out.”
Chloë Grace Moretz and Desiree Akhavan
Taking The Miseducation of Cameron Post to the big screen is the culmination of a dream for Akhavan that began when she fell in love with the novel years ago.
“It’s such a well-written book. It has such a beautiful tone that dances between comedy, tragedy, and the banality of being a teenager in America,” Akhavan says.
Akhavan has a knack for getting to the crux of the teenage experience.
“Representation matters. I grew up with so little that looked like me. The movies, the television series that I watched raised me,” Akhavan says. “It did not escape me that none of them felt like my life. I felt deeply abnormal. Nothing spoke truthfully to life as I knew it and I thought something was wrong with me.”
Danforth’s novel was a revelation to Akhavan. Embedded in the story was Cameron’s unwavering sexuality in the face of her evangelical aunt who ships her off to conversion therapy after the teen is found in flagrante delicto with another girl.
“[Sex] is a huge part of her character. In the book, and this script that we made,” Akhavan says. “It just felt like this is a girl whose sexuality is imprisoning her literally and metaphorically, so why would we shy from that?”
Moretz, Sasha Lane, and Forrest Goodluck
“So much of the story unfolds through sex. The inciting incident is a sex scene,” she adds of her decision to lean on depicting teen sexuality. “We should see that. We should know what her experience of that is. That’s her losing her virginity. We should be there. It’s the best and the worst moment.”
While Cameron’s awareness of her sexuality is only slightly mitigated by Lydia’s heinous therapy, Akhavan doesn’t shy away from illustrating its damage through other characters. There’s a graphic description of self-harm in the film but Akhavan also highlights psychological trauma in terms of one female character’s shame around owning her sexual desire.
Mid-way through the film, Cameron’s roommate Erin (played by Emily Skeggs of Fun Home and When We Rise), a Minnesota Vikings superfan desperately working to extirpate what Rev. Rick and Lydia refer to as “gender confusion,” climbs into Cameron’s bed in what is likely her character’s most authentic moment in the film. But after pleasuring Cameron, Erin becomes painfully aware of her actions and denies reciprocation, a reaction that can be extrapolated out to women owning their sexual agency in general.
“It speaks to the conditioning that has been happening, obviously, within the program,” Moretz says of Erin’s reaction. “She felt this attraction to [Cameron] and she followed through with it. But the minute she did it, she hated herself for it. That was speaking to the depravity of the psychotherapy that they’ve been doing with these kids.”
The Miseducation of Cameron Post drops at a time when the issue of who gets to tell whose stories is front and center, and Akhavan's lived experience as a bisexual woman is essential, not only to getting the depiction of queer female desire right on the screen, but in telling an authentic story throughout.
Moretz, ever the activist, is sure to emphasize the inclusion of LGBT people involved with the film as the future of Hollywood.
"This is made by queer people. This is directed by queer people. Everyone in the film is on a spectrum and connect to this on a personal level," Moretz says. "I think that’s really important is this story needs to be protected and told by queer people and put out so you can see it adequately depicted on screen."