Miseducation of Cameron Post, The: Interview with Director Desiree Akhavan

Director Desiree Akhavan was working on a book in 2011 when a publisher sent her a pre-publication copy of Emily M. Danforth’s young adult novel, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”

Set in Montana in the early 1990s, the 470-page book follows eight years in the life of its titular heroine.

Cameron, only 12, is beginning to discover her homosexuality when her parents are killed. She then lives with her evangelical aunt and uncle, who send her to a Christian gay conversion center when they found out about her sexuality.

Akhavan was moved by the novel, which is written in the first person. “The book spoke really honestly about coming of age and it just happened to be gay. Cameron’s gayness was the whole plot but it still didn’t feel like a gay issue story. It didn’t feel condescending or preachy or affected. It felt just as relatable and truthful as all other really good YA novels,” she says. “I always thought if I were to make a movie, I would focus on the last 200 pages with her time at the conversion center.”

She revisited the idea four years later, while traveling the festival circuit with her feature debut, Appropriate Behavior. Akhavan wrote, directed and starred in the film, a comedy about a twentysomething Persian-American woman and her floundering attempts to be an ideal Persian daughter, politically correct bisexual and cool Brooklynite. The film was well received, with critics remarking on Akhavan’s distinctive voice and smart, off-kilter humor.

Akhavan recalls: “The minute Cecilia (the producer) started reading, she said, ‘This is our next film.’ And Cecilia’s not gay so I was little surprised that she wanted to make another gay film. But she loved it so much.”

In its humor, insight and respect for its teen characters, the novel recalls John Hughes‘ films like THE BREAKFAST CLUB and SIXTEEN CANDLES. “Both Cecilia and I love John Hughes films,” comments Akhavan. “I don’t think there have been great teen films since John Hughes. There was something in the book that was really special. It was funny and had this feeling of an ensemble teen cast. Everyone’s there for a different reason and everyone’s reacted to the situation differently. The story was like a hybrid of high school coming-of-age, rehabilitation and boarding school film. It was a very rich environment for our characters.

Akhavan and Fruguiele had already been working on a screenplay together and decided to partner on the adaptation. Before they could begin, however, they needed to determine their point of entry to the story. In doing so, Akhavan looked to her own experience seeking treatment for an eating disorder at a rehabilitation center where she was in her mid-20s. The therapeutic process itself; the different histories and attitudes that patients brought to their treatment; the relationships or antipathies that formed
among a group of people living together in a controlled situation: these were ongoing areas of interest to Akhavan.

“I love stories that take place in rehabilitation centers and I’ve always wanted to do a project that talked about what it felt like to be in those rooms,” she remarks. “It’s about ‘getting better,’ but what is that? It looks different for each person. People also create alliances on the basis of how committed they are to getting better or to not getting better. I was looking at the book again and it hit me: what is ‘better’ when you can’t ‘pray away the gay?’ That was the kernel of an idea that Cecilia and I started with in writing the screenplay.”

Akhavan and Fruguiele began writing the screenplay in March 2015 after optioning the novel.  Research helped them flesh out the particulars of the film’s primary setting, a Christian gay conversion therapy center called God’s Promise. They read all the literature they could find that related to the subject, including books on battling homosexuality and gay conversion psychology. They found that ex-gay communities exist in all over the world and listened to sermons preached in those communities.

God’s Promise is the brainchild of Dr. Lydia Marsh, who established the residential therapy center after “curing” her brother Reverend Rick and restoring him to healthy heterosexuality. The children at the center wear uniforms, attend classes and sermons and bunk with assigned roommates. Lydia’s treatment protocol blends traditional techniques like group and individual therapy sessions with oddities like “the iceberg,” an illustration exercise intended to help the kids identify the root causes of their gayness. “I always saw Lydia as the most intelligent person in every room she’s in,” says Akhavan. “She wanted to heal her brother. I think the conversion therapy started off as experimental and she found other therapists who were interested in this kind of work.”

Lydia is deeply serious about her work and doesn’t cut the children any slack. She’s very much an authority figure, not unlike a headmistress at a prep school, Akhavan notes. “A good head of school is tough, is intimidating, and gets the job done. Lydia sees these kids as her children and thinks she’s protecting them. She’s a generous person with a lot of heart… who’s completely wrong in how she thinks about sexuality and is teaching these kids to hate themselves. That’s the messy part – everyone decides for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong. Good intentions can lead to terrible actions.”

Flashbacks in the story illuminate Cameron’s love affair with her best friend Coley. They seize every chance they can get to be alone, getting turned on as they watch VHS tapes of lesbian-themed movies like PERSONAL BEST and DESERT HEARTS. On prom night, they sneak off to the back seat of a car to smoke pot and fool around. After they’re caught, Cameron gets sent off to God’s Promise. Thrust into a strange environment, Cameron is polite and agreeable and plays her cards close to her vest. Though she doesn’t let on, she’s not particularly interested in being cured.

Cameron finds like-minded fellowship with the camp’s two misfits, Jane Fonda and Adam Red Eagle. Among other things, Jane and Adam are cultivating a mini pot garden in the nearby woods, and Jane stashes their weed in the prosthetic leg she’s worn since a car accident. “Jane and Adam are the only people there Cameron can be honest with,” says Akhavan. “She’s never met other gay people before. She’s never had a conversation about it. She’s able now to have these people in her life who totally get it.”
Jane and Adam not only get it, they’re unapologetic about it. Neither have any intention of renouncing their orientation. “Jane and Adam have a very different scale of reference than all the other kids because they’re not as religious,” Akhavan comments. “Jane’s mother married a religious man and Adam’s father went into politics and had to adopt Christianity for political reasons. But they weren’t raised with this so they can see through it. Whereas Cameron was raised this way after her parents died and she went to live with her evangelical aunt.”

Like any teenager, Cameron is susceptible to self-doubt. “In a way, the film is tracking how this center could break the will of an intelligent girl who had a good sense of who she was before she came in. How can you brainwash a person into hating themselves? I think that emblematic of the teen experience overall. I think most people are fine before puberty and then you become a teen and you just start to question everything about yourself.”

Events lead Cameron to question the received truths that have thus far shaped her life. “A lot of the story to me, and a lot of what John Hughes’ films are about, is that moment when you realize that the adults don’t have all the answers. Or maybe any answers. Everything you’re told comes from people who have been alive longer and you just assume it’s correct. But then at a certain point, you have to decide for yourself what’s right.”

Akhavan and Fruguiele wrote numerous drafts of the screenplay, working on it for about a year. They found financing and a production partner early on in Beachside Films (MORRIS FROM AMERICA, THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES).

In the summer of 2016, Akhavan traveled from her home in London to New York, where she and casting director Jessica Daniels began the search for the film’s Cameron.