Desiree Akhavan had wanted to make a film adaptation of The Miseducation of Cameron Post for years, ever since she read the book. “I read the book in 2012, I loved it,” Akhavan said in a phone call on Tuesday. “It was my girlfriend at the time who said, ‘You have to make this a film. ... It’s going to be so good as a film.’ I thought it was way out of my comfort zone and my abilities.”
Akhavan held onto the idea of adapting the novel, which tells the story of a Montana girl who lives with her conservative aunt after her parents die in an accident. Over the course of the book, Cameron realizes she’s gay, falls in love with her best friend, and gets sent off to a Christian “conversion therapy” bootcamp. Akhavan even reached out to the book’s author, Emily Danforth, writing what she called a “fan letter,” and the two became friends.
But Akhavan said she knew adapting the book couldn’t be her first feature film. “I wanted a little more experience under my belt, and the ability to get a higher budget,” she said. Akhavan got that experience with her 2014 film Appropriate Behavior, which she wrote, directed and starred in. It follows a 20-something bisexual Brooklynite through a rough breakup and through coming out to her Iranian-American parents.
The film was critically acclaimed and helped land Akhavan a part on HBO’s Girls. Now, four years after Appropriate Behavior played at Sundance, Akhavan’s film adaptation of The Miseducation of Cameron Post is finally here.
Akhavan co-wrote and directed the film, which opens in theaters on Friday, and stars Chloë Grace Moretz in the titular role. The film adaptation of The Miseducation of Cameron Post tracks closely with the final third of the book, following Cameron to God’s Promise, a sort of “conversion therapy” boarding school in the woods of Montana, where she’s sent after she’s outed to her aunt. There, Cameron makes friends with the other teenagers, bears witness to their pain and confusion and deals with her own as she’s told again and again that her desires are wrong.
The film, an achingly melancholy teen drama, has sparks of dry comedy and echoes the John Hughes-ian tradition of teen misfits finding their tribe onscreen — except the stakes for these characters are much higher than for average high school students. It’s already earned accolades: The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the U.S. dramatic grand jury prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
On Tuesday, Akhavan chatted about the process of adapting the book, who she hopes will see the film and the coincidental confluence of films about “conversion therapy” coming out this year. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: You grew up in the New York City area, in an Iranian-American family, obviously really different from Cameron’s story. When you first read the book, what made you see yourself as a teenager in her story?
Desiree Akhavan: What I think is so brilliant about the book, and the story in general, is that I don’t think you have to be a gay teen growing up in rural Montana to understand what it’s like to feel diseased.
I think that being a teenager is universally the time in a person’s life when they feel like something is deeply, deeply wrong with them and they have to fix that, whether or not they’re gay. The setting just felt like the perfect metaphor for being a teen anywhere. Everyone around you is telling you you’re crazy and sick and your gut is telling you that’s wrong.
But also I loved the humor. [The book] felt funny to me. It didn’t take itself seriously. It was about the most serious subject matter I could think of and yet it was hilarious. And it reminded me so much of growing up because Cameron has grown up with film and television as her parent, and took so much solace and comfort in the movies she watched.
It was the humor and the tragedy combined that felt like such a perfect teen story to me. That’s what it was like being a teenager — growing up, feeling like everything was the absolute worst and also the most exciting.
What were some of those movies and television shows you loved when you were growing up?
DA: Oh, god. I was obsessed with The Brady Bunch, Saved By the Bell, Family Matters, Full House — anything crappy and on television, it was mine. I just grew up in front of the television, I loved it. And I didn’t have many friends, so it’s all I had. And also, TV gave me a sense of what it was to be American. It was the TV shows we could all watch together as a family, too, that were significant, like The Tracey Ullman Show and anything by Mel Brooks.
Everything you said is a comedy.
DA: Yeah, I love comedy.
Do you consider yourself a comedian?
DA: Yeah. I think that’s such a compliment, I don’t want to flatter myself. I think that people who do stand-up really understand what that means in a way that I don’t. But I love comedy. It’s my personality. Making jokes and finding humor in all situations is the way I function. And the most upsetting things always feel really hilarious to me. That’s something that appealed to me about the book — the book felt really funny.
But I’m a Cheerleader came out about 20 years ago, and it’s such a touchstone movie for so many queer women. It’s also about conversion therapy, but through a really campy lens. Did you think about that film at all as you were making Miseducation?
DA: No, not at all. I love that movie, and I had of course watched it. I loved it, I thought it was hilarious. My co-writer and I talked about it, and knew it was out there. Actually, we didn’t even watch it again. We didn’t want to have it in our heads and feel influenced without realizing it.
It really confuses me that people are like, the minute they hear about [The Miseducation of Cameron Post] they’re like, “Oh, But I’m a Cheerleader.” It’s like, how many films have you seen about some straight white guy, some straight white girl, they’re both single and they’re both feeling each other? You know? I’ve seen so many films about it and yet I wouldn’t be like, “Oh no, The Proposal is just like this other white, straight people movie that is romantic.” It just blows my mind.
But this is such a niche subject matter, and queer films, especially queer films with women, are so rare that it became, like, a [But I’m a Cheerleader] “remake” of sorts. But they’re just completely different films that happen to be about the same subject. But not really, they’re just about the same horrible things that happen still today.
Not to suggest that Miseducation is necessarily picking up where another film left off, but it does feel like, with Miseducation and then Boy Erased coming out in the fall, that maybe we’re finally ready to reckon with conversion therapy. And there just aren’t that many examples of trying to process this trauma through art.
DA: The Boy Erased thing, it really snuck up on me. I was so excited when I heard that there was another film [about conversion therapy] because I thought, “Cool, yeah, Nicole Kidman should star in a film about gay conversion therapy.” That’s very exciting.
But at the same time, it’s so different. It seems to me — I haven’t seen the film, but seeing the trailer and knowing that story — that it’s a very different movie. It’s a very different tone. It’s a story about a family, whereas Cameron’s story is about her and her friends, it’s a teen film. It’s comedic, it’s silly at times. It’s just a different world.
It reminds me a little bit of when I made Appropriate Behavior and everyone was like “Oh, so you’re copying Girls. You must really love Lena Dunham.” And I do love Lena Dunham, but to me we were so different. And it’s like, “Oh, because I’m a woman who makes my own work, and has a sense of humor and talks about sex, that I’m just like that other woman who has a sense of humor and talks about sex.” That’s quite simplistic to me. I like her work, but I think we’re grappling with different things.
When you’re imagining the audience going to see Miseducation, who are you imagining? Are you imagining queer teenagers? All teenagers? Straight parents?
DA: I want people. I want everybody. I mean, I know that’s not realistic and most likely I’ll just be preaching to my tiny choir. But what’s interesting is I use my immigrant family as a litmus test for everything, and my family loves this film. We couldn’t talk much about Appropriate Behavior, I think it was a little too much for them.
Was it too close to home?
DA: I think it’s not pleasant to see your sister or child or niece have a threesome. [Appropriate Behavior] was a film that appealed to a certain type of person who was young.
But the thing about Miseducation is that it speaks to people of all walks of life, and I don’t think that’s because I’m so brilliant. I think it’s because of the subject matter. I think it’s about the tone, and that has to do with the book. That’s what inspired me to make it. You can relate to this story, and see yourself in it and find entertainment in it without understanding that life particularly, and that’s what I love about it.
I don’t think of a certain type of audience. I know, realistically, it’s going to be liberal kids who live by a major cinema because it’s not a wide release. But I do in my heart know that if someone was forced to go to this who would see the poster and be like, “No thanks, not for me,” that they would leave touched. Because that’s true of everyone in my family. They all went because they love me and support me, and then were like, “Oh shit, this actually really resonated with me.” And I’m quite proud of that.
That’s awesome to hear. I think the nature of the internet is such that the movie will probably find its way to lots of people.
DA: Yeah, Inshallah. I really hope so.