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I Hope That This Film Speaks to People: Desiree Akhavan on The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The year is 1993. While at a school dance, Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) sneaks a kiss with another girl. Her male date is less-than-thrilled, and soon, she’s in deep trouble with her conservative Christian aunt. Post is punished by her aunt, who sends her away to a Jesus camp called God’s Promise for gay conversion therapy. Fortunately, she finds some kindred misfit spirits in Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck) to keep things interesting.

There are many chances to cringe during Desiree Akhavan’s heartfelt film adaptation of the book, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” The film is full of poignant moments of adolescent awkwardness and observant commentary about the ill-equipped adults who are likely doing more harm to the kids than they realize in the name of Jesus. Akhavan spoke with RogerEbert.com after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

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At the [Sundance] premiere, you invited anyone who worked even a day on set to come on stage. I think it was the most full I have ever seen the Eccles stage. What was that experience going from a super small crew to collaborating with so many more people?

Well, it didn’t feel like a different size of people. Also, we lived on the location of God’s Promise.

And where was that?

Upstate New York by the Catskills. So, we knew each other really well and had lived together and had a lot of trust. We went through the election together, which was really intense. 

You were filming during that time?

Yeah, that scene where Chloë sings “What’s Up” and jumps on that table. We had to break in the middle to watch the concession speech and cry. It was so intense. I had never experienced anything like that on set before. What was special about it was that we were together. I remember thinking, “I’d rather spend this day with you than anywhere else and make something because that’s the best channeling of energy right now.” Like, everyone just wants to go home and cry, but at least we get to make something today. We can cry, and figure that shit out too, but we get to do it together. Those are the people I was really happy to share this with. 

How does it feel to release this film in the middle of that administration?

What’s interesting about living in a time like this is that you also get to be a part of a rebellion against it. More women are running for office than ever. I think young people are getting politically motivated in a way that they weren’t before. I want to be part of that change. It’s funny, my parents grew up in Iran, and left during the Islamic revolution, so, I’m not phased by that much. I don’t know if that’s the right terminology. But this is life, this is what it is to be alive and I’m sad to see this kind of blatant, obvious injustice. I think it existed before and we were all very happy to turn a blind eye to it, and now it’s shoved in your face. I’m sad that this is the climate I’m in, but I’m very proud to release a film that says “fuck you” to it. 

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One of the important things that you said on stage was that a lot of the incidents that you researched for the movie were things that happened recently like the whole anti-gay conversion therapy. Can you talk a little bit about that research process, getting in touch with survivors and how you put all of that together?

Over the course of two years while making this film and adapting that book, I was also reading books about gay conversion therapy. One was called, “Understanding Homosexuality.” That’s sitting in my house right now. My co-writer just gave me all the books, so I have a big stack of anti-gay books in my house, but they’re older. 

For more recent stuff, we looked at Exodus International and tragic figureheads. Alan Chambers was the head of Exodus International, he’s an ex-gay spokesperson who is now so full of love – like he’s such a tragic, loving man. He writes a lot, and so does his wife. They do a lot of talks, and this is sort of what they do. I feel like, he’s trapped himself in this persona. And it was really intense, you know, obsessing over him for a year. I wonder if he’ll see this film and what he’ll think of it. 

It’d be interesting to see what any of that side would think.

I know. Especially after being someone who was silently stalking them for so long. But also because of talking to survivors and hearing their stories, like Matthew, the gentleman who came onstage during the Q&A. He’s in his late twenties. He’s so young and this happened to him so recently. He grew up in Long Island. It’s not like he was in Bumblefuck, Missouri, or something, he was in a big city. 

The analogy of how all young people feel there is something wrong with them that needs to change and that they’re defective. I hope that this film speaks to people. We wanted the specificity of this world cause that’s what makes the stakes, but it isn’t just about gay conversion therapy, it’s about trying to change to fit something that you couldn’t possibly do. 

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I think you could feel it in the audience during the screening. 

Right?! I felt like I was a crazy narcissist, but I thought, this is playing well! It washeart aching and funny, and I think that’s something that we really struggled with in post and it wasn’t until watching it yesterday that we all were like, “We did it!”

A lot of people had questions about how you balanced the tragedy and comedy tones.

It was many months of editing, and on set to keep things light and moving. Sara Shaw, my editor; Jill Landau, our second editor; myself; Cecilia [Frugiuele], my co-writer; and Michael Clark, our second producer – all of us were in the office every day in the last month – looking at things, rearranging things, rearranging boards, reappropriating scenes that had been cut to do something else, like a flashback. That’s how that tone was crafted, and it took a long time. I don’t think it was something that comes easily.

I’m also curious that you said you felt a little weird not being in front of the camera.

It didn’t feel weird, it felt wonderful. It felt fucking amusing, and man, did I enjoy not having to do double duty. Before we shot, I really doubted myself. It was my producer – who has impeccable taste – felt that I was feeling the same way before "Appropriate Behavior." “Fuck, I’m doubting myself, let’s go hire an actress, this is so stupid. I’m going to humiliate myself.” And she said, “Nope, I have very good taste, and you should trust me.” I just had doubt. It had been years since I had been on a set.

How did you work with Chloë to create the character of Cameron?

We talked a lot about who we thought she was and what her circumstances were. Chloë also knows her own deal. She knows what she wants to do in a scene. So you watch her, and you decide when and how you want to interfere, but you also get out of her way. Each actor requires something completely different. I think you just have to be a really good observer of human behavior and just decide when you need to step in and when you need to butt out. With Chloë, you shouldn’t step in too much. She’s got it in her head and she had broken down those beats before she came to set.

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